The U.S. Air Force has announced the completion of two KC-46A Pegasus tanker sorties with only a pilot and single boom operator, as well as an instructor pilot acting only as a safety observer, onboard. The service conducted these flights as part of efforts to validate this already controversial proposed concept of operation, which it says could be useful for helping to ensure adequate aerial refueling capacity during future high-end conflicts, such as one in the Pacific against China.
A KC-46A from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas conducted both sorties on October 25, according to a release from Air Mobility Command (AMC). The 22nd is one of the largest current operators of these tankers within the Air Force, having received 21 of the 59 Pegasuses that the service had taken delivery of as of May.
"This mission was practiced extensively in flight simulators," Air Force Col. Nate Vogel, head of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, said in a statement. "Each phase of evaluation has been carefully considered, taking into account crew safety, aircraft capabilities, and existing federal aviation standards. That allowed us to make a deliberate and thorough analysis of what risks and hurdles are present, how to mitigate those, and allowed us to recommend training requirements to familiarize crews with the basic functions and critical controls of unfamiliar crew positions."
A standard KC-46A crew complement is one pilot, one copilot, and a boom operator, according to AMC. The crew can be augmented with additional personnel for longer-duration missions.
"The [reduced crew] mission was executed inside military test airspace and included two KC-46 sorties with a reduced crew complement of only a single pilot and boom operator. The first sortie flew the pattern only, followed by a debrief and assessment," the AMC release explains. "The second sortie immediately followed and accomplished a full mission profile including ground operations; preflight tasks; takeoff; aerial refueling rendezvous; air refueling on-load and offload; landing; and debrief."
"The boom operator was co-located in the cockpit with the pilot, except when performing boom operations, and a second instructor pilot was on board throughout the entire mission to serve as a safety observer," the release adds. "A second KC-46 with a full crew complement of subject matter experts accompanied the first aircraft to provide assistance by radio, if needed."
That the Air Force was exploring the idea of conducting KC-46A sorties with a two-person crew at all had first emerged in July. The service says that this could allow a "KC-46 to complete its primary mission with a reduced crew complement when needed to rapidly launch aircraft with threats inbound or extend long-range operations in the air with offset crews."
"In wartime, airfields are static targets, as are any aircraft on the airfield when an attack is inbound," Col. Vogel added in his statement. "But once airborne, the aircraft is a mobile platform capable of maneuver and continuing to provide mission capability for the combatant commander."
"I have been very clear with my team: victory will be delivered on the back of the mobility air forces, and doing so means taking a hard look at every tool we have at our disposal," Gen. Mike Minihan, head of AMC, said in his own statement today. "The dynamics of the future operating environment require us to think in ways we might not usually think."
The Air Force is certainly right to be concerned about the volume of threats its known bases, especially those closer to the center of the actual fighting, would be subjected to in the opening stages of any high-end conflict. The U.S. military, as a whole, is well aware of these issues and is actively pursuing efforts to mitigate them, including through the development of new and improved defensive architectures and rapid and distributed deployment concepts, especially in the Pacific. One particularly significant focus has been on improving the air and missile defenses on Guam, a U.S. island territory in the Western Pacific that is home to multiple highly strategic bases, including Andersen Air Force Base. Additional air base facilities are now being built on the nearby island of Tinian Island, too.
The Air Force just confirmed to The War Zone today that it would be shuttering two F-15C/D squadrons based at Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, another highly strategic, but increasingly vulnerable facility. The service will shift, at least in the near term, to rotational deployments of fourth and fifth-generation fighters, as you can read more about here.
At the same time, there are concerns that reduced crew KC-46A sorties could present new risks, including safety issues stemming from the additional workload placed on the lone pilot. As The War Zone noted when talk of this single-pilot concept first emerged, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) places hard restrictions on what kinds of aircraft can be flown with just one pilot – only certain light jets and smaller planes – and when. Nowhere in the world would a commercial airliner of a similar size to the Pegasus be allowed to fly with a lone pilot.
Beyond this, though the Air Force continues to expand the operational contexts in which the KC-46A is allowed to operate, these tankers are still struggling with significant technical deficiencies with regard to their booms and the complex hybrid 2D/3D Remote Vision System (RVS) operators use to guide them into receiving aircraft. By all accounts, Pegasus boom operators – who do their work in the aircraft's main cabin rather than from a position at the rear of the aircraft as on past tankers – rely heavily on established workarounds and experience with on-the-fly troubleshooting to get things done.
The Air Force is working with the KC-46A's manufacturer, Boeing, on a replacement RVS. However, that project was just recently hit with new delays, and the design and testing of the revised system are now unlikely to be finished before October 2025. After that, the new RVS 2.0s will still need to be installed on any Pegasuses the Air Force has received by that point. The service has dozens of these tankers already and expects to take delivery of more in this timeframe.
Regardless, it's still unclear when, or even if, the Air Force will ultimately approve two-crew KC-46A operations, and what restrictions and other stipulations the service may be placed on how and when those sorties can be conducted.
Still, the two test sorties earlier this week do make clear that AMC remains very interested in seeing if can prove out the idea of flying KC-46As on operational missions with just a pilot and boom operator.
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