Assembly for Japan’s First KC-46A Begins; Problems Continue for USAF Program

 - September 19, 2019, 1:42 PM
An 82.4-ft long 767 wing spar is loaded into a tool in Boeing’s factory at Everett, Washington, to begin the assembly of the first KC-46A tanker for Japan. (photo: Boeing)

Boeing has begun assembling the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s (JASDF) new 767-derived KC-46A tanker, the first of two on order for the service that are being delivered under a Foreign Military Sale. The first aircraft was ordered in 2017 and the second in 2018 as a contract option under a deal that could result in up to four Pegasus aircraft being acquired for Japan. In mid-September the OEM started assembly at Everett, Washington, with a wing spar.

Japan is the first export customer for the aircraft, and will receive the aircraft in 2021, joining the U.S. Air Force in operating the type. The first U.S. example went into service in January. It will be certified to refuel all USAF, U.S. Navy, and JASDF aircraft, Boeing notes, bolstering U.S.-Japanese defense ties.

“This is an exciting day for the program and we look forward to building and delivering these multi-role tankers to the Japan Air Self-Defense Force,” said Jamie Burgess, Boeing’s vice president and KC-46 program manager. “From the enhanced flight deck to the modernized boom, this tanker will provide unmatched capabilities for Japan.”

However, while Boeing is celebrating kicking off assembly of the JASDF aircraft, problems are still surfacing for the troubled Pegasus program, which has, to date, resulted in deliveries to the U.S. Air Force being suspended following debris being left in delivered aircraft. Previous concerns have been centered on problems with the aerial refueling systems and the remote vision system that aids tanking.

The aircraft is designed to be able to carry passengers, cargo and patients in addition to acting as a tanker, but in September it was revealed by the U.S. Air Mobility Command that there were concerns regarding the cargo lock functionality during recent flights. As a result, the aircraft are no longer permitted to perform cargo or passenger operations until the issue is resolved, it has been reported.

One of the KC-46A trials aircraft refuels an F-15E. Following recent issues, the operaional fleet has been restricted to tanker-only missions. (photo: Boeing)

As of the end of August, Boeing claimed that it had delivered 19 KC-46 aircraft to the USAF and, while there are ongoing problems with the development, its first export customer remains committed to the program. Japan is reportedly considering more Pegasus aircraft in addition to the four that have been authorized so far.

Israel is also reportedly interested in eight examples to replace its mixed fleet of aging tankers, while the United Arab Emirates has also been revealed as a potential customer for the aircraft, despite the Middle Eastern nation already being an operator of the Airbus Defence & Space A330-derived Multi-role Tanker Transport.