KC-46 is the Logical Choice for US Tanker Recapitalization

With military conflict only a heartbeat away, there is no such thing as being too prepared.

The US Air Force has finally undertaken its massive recapitalization project to replace its aging fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. These flying gas stations have been in service since the Eisenhower era, and the air force needs a modernized tanker to take over the refueling mission.

The best aircraft for this critical task is the American-made KC-46 Pegasus.

Air Mobility Command currently has an inventory of nearly 400 Stratotankers, all destined for retirement. America’s tanker fleet is the key to retaining its edge in the air, allowing it to project its power and protect its interests and allies around the globe.

As KC-135s are phased out, the US Air Force will be left with capability gaps that could prove costly for US military readiness. This is particularly concerning due to the rising tensions around the globe and the likelihood of US military intervention in the near future.

Competitive Edge

Approximately 250 KC-135s are operated by USAF Reserve units and the Air National Guard at 14 bases around the country. The refueling mission is essential to our aerial forces and key to successful operations, particularly future battles in the Pacific region.

The need for a prepared, fully operational fighting force is even more important since it’s not hard to imagine the next conflict happening in our backyard.

The KC-46 stands to be USAF’s next transformative aircraft, much like the heavy-lift, strategic transport C-17, which is serving as the US military’s core airlift plane with capabilities that make it indispensable for all types of missions. Refueling capabilities are just as important as payload and transport capabilities.

During the first Iraq War, I piloted the C-5 and utilized the KC-10 and KC-135 for in-flight refueling. The ability to stay in the fight longer without needing to return to base or land to refuel is and will continue to be necessary to maintain a competitive edge for the Air Force.

The KC-46 is the logical next step in the evolution of American refueling aircraft for several reasons.

A F-16 receives fuel from a KC-46 Pegasus. Photo: USAF Tech. Sgt. John Raven

Made in America

Most important, the KC-46 is American-made. As USAF and congressional leaders consider options for the tanker recapitalization effort, the fact that the Pegasus has an established, US-based supply chain cannot be overlooked.

The main competitor to the KC-46 is manufactured in Europe, with European-based suppliers. While the US and Europe are strategic allies, relying on foreign-based products is a risky proposition, especially with a looming threat of global crisis.

Shipping delays, supplier company complications, and political considerations are only a few of the many difficulties USAF would be likely to face if it chose a foreign-made aircraft. And when you’re in the thick of military operations, there is no time to wait when you need spare parts for an aircraft essential to mission success.

Adaptable Tech

The Pegasus also features adaptable technology that can change in time with the fight, giving pilots the ability to adjust strategic plans and adapt to the challenges unfolding before them.

As an added benefit, the KC-46 will serve as an intelligence hub in the sky for the entire US aerial fleet, as well as American allies.

The ability to receive and transmit mission-critical information in real time will enhance our competitive and strategic edge over adversarial nations and increase the safety of our flight crews.

Another factor that makes the Pegasus the best choice for USAF is that it already meets or exceeds the strict certification requirements outlined by the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration for airworthiness.

In fact, it’s the only commercial derivative refueling tanker currently in production to do so.

KC-46 aerial refueling aircraft
KC-46 aerial refueling aircraft taxied down the runway at Pease Air National Guard Base, New Hampshire. Photo: Staff Sgt. Victoria Nelson/US Air Force

Easy Decision

There are many complicated defense spending and strategic decisions our military and national leaders must make. The choice for America’s next generation of refueling aircraft shouldn’t be one of them.

As the US Air Force continues its recapitalization efforts, the KC-46 must be the centerpiece — with emphasis on transitioning our Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard tanker bases as quickly as possible.

With military conflict only a heartbeat away, there is no such thing as being too prepared.

Headshot Al Baker Al Baker is a retired US Air Force Colonel who flew C-5s and C-130s in combat during the first Iraq War.

He flew multiple missions receiving in-air refueling from the KC-10 and KC-135, predecessors to the KC-46.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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