KC-46 Tanker Cleared to Refuel F-15s and F-16s on Operations

 - October 21, 2021, 6:13 AM
A 97th AMW KC-46 passes fuel to a 49th Wing F-16C in December 2020 during a training mission over New Mexico. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

General Mike Minihan, the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC), signed off a third Interim Capability Release (ICR) for the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker on October 13. The approval now permits the KC-46A to refuel all versions of Boeing F-15 Eagle and Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters on missions tasked by U.S. Transportation Command.

The ICR is highly significant as the F-15 and F-16 represent the bulk of the U.S. Air Force’s tactical airpower, and the clearance to refuel them on operations permits the KC-46A to significantly increase its contribution to the Air Force’s refueling capacity.

Previous ICR approvals initially released the KC-46A to pass fuel to receivers using the centerline drogue system, clearing it to refuel U.S. Navy/Marine Corps aircraft that are equipped with probes. That July 9 ICR was followed by another on August 5 that permitted the operational tanking of the B-52, C-17 and other KC-46s using the boom.

“The KC-46 can now support 62 percent of all receiver aircraft that request air refueling support from USTRANSCOM,” said Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, AMC deputy director of Strategy, Plans, Requirements and Programs and KC-46 Cross Functional Team lead. "This step forward accelerates the critical projection and connection warfighting requirements the Pegasus brings to the joint force, even before it’s fully operational.”

Around 50 of the currently planned 179 KC-46As have been delivered to the Air Force, and since the first delivery in January 2019 the fleet has flown more than 6,000 training missions, during which more than 35 million pounds of fuel have been offloaded. Boom contacts have topped 26,000, while drogue contacts number more than 1,500. In December 2020 two KC-46As from the 56th Air Refueling Squadron of the 97th Air Mobility Wing—the KC-46 Formal Training Unit at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma—refueled 10 F-16Cs from the Holloman AFB, New Mexico-based 49th Wing, marking the first time that Air Education and Training Command Pegasus crews had refueled fighter receivers.

Further ICRs to clear additional capabilities will be issued incrementally, but there is no timeline associated with the process. Boeing and the Air Force continue to work through a number of issues that have dogged the program and resulted in a series of restrictions being imposed on the Pegasus. Full operational clearance is slated for 2024.