Israel Approved for KC-46, but USAF Problems Persist

 - March 5, 2020, 5:23 AM
If Israel concludes its purchase of the KC-46A Pegasus it will become the second export customer for the type. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress on March 3 that the U.S. State Department had approved a potential Foreign Military Sale to Israel of the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker. Worth an estimated $2.4 billion, the proposed purchase includes up to eight aircraft, up to 17 Pratt & Whitney PW4062 engines (one spare), and 18 Raytheon MAGR 2K-GPS SAASM (selective availability anti-spoofing module) jam-resistant navigation systems, as well as other communications systems and support activities.

Congressional approval of the sale follows a Letter of Request (LoR) being submitted by Israel in May 2019. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has a pressing need to replace its elderly fleet of Boeing 707-300 Re’em tankers, some of which have been in service since 1977. In 2019 the fleet was temporarily grounded, but only as a precaution following an accident suffered by a C-130 Hercules. Such is the urgency for a new tanker that it has been reported that Israel has inquired about early delivery of two KC-46As, taking over production slots currently filled by U.S. Air Force aircraft.

Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bedek division has engineered its own tanker conversion of the Boeing 767 airliner, known as the K-767 Multi-Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT). One Series 200-based tanker/transport was sold to Colombia, and Brazil signed up for three, based on the 767-300ER. Bedek has a thriving 767 cargo conversion program and had hoped to perform more MMTT conversions for the Israeli air force. Local media outlet Globes reported in August 2018 that Boeing would refuse to issue the necessary license to IAI to convert 767s for the IAF as they would be competing directly with the KC-46A. Israel intends to pay for its KC-46As mostly with funds from U.S. military aid.

If the sale proceeds, Israel will become the second export customer for the KC-46A in a marketplace that has hitherto been dominated by the Airbus A330 MRTT. Japan was the first to sign up for the Pegasus, selecting the type in October 2015. As many as six could be ordered to augment the air force’s existing fleet of four of the earlier KC-767J model. Italy, too, operates the simpler KC-767. At the end of May 2019, the United Arab Emirates also delivered an LoR for the KC-46A, according to Boeing, but the UAE is already an A330 MRTT operator, and there have been no further reports concerning a potential Pegasus purchase.

In the meantime, problems persist with the U.S. Air Force’s Pegasus program, which saw the much-delayed first aircraft handed over in January 2019. On March 3, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein told a Senate Armed Services Committee that, as it stands, the service would not use the KC-46A operationally unless it absolutely had to. In essence, that meant a case of large-scale conflict with a major power, and only then with highly-experienced crews.

The principal issue remains the remote viewing system (RVS), which sometimes does not focus effectively when the boom is in close proximity to the receiver, in turn increasing the risk of the boom striking the aircraft and causing damage. The Air Force hopes that a remedy can be found before the end of March, and Goldfein noted that he had seen a change in Boeing since David Calhoun took over as CEO, and that he felt “more confident that we have a serious fix on the table.”