A KC-46A Pegasus tanker takes off March 17, 2022, from McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas,  for Moron Air Base, Spain. (US Air Force photo by Amn. William Lunn)

Edited on 4/2/2022 at 2:54 pm EST after a spokesperson for AMC clarified that US Air Forces in Europe is tasking the KC-46, and not TRANSCOM as originally reported.

WASHINGTON: For the past week, the Boeing KC-46 has been conducting refueling missions in Europe, providing fuel over Germany and Poland to US fighters and bombers bolstering NATO’s eastern front, even though the beleaguered tanker isn’t yet considered operational.

Air Mobility Command head Gen. Mike Minihan on March 10 approved the deployment of four KC-46s and 220 airmen to Moron Air Base in Spain, AMC spokesman Capt. Chris Herbert confirmed in a statement to Breaking Defense.

Because the KC-46 has not been declared operational, this “employment concept exercise” is designed to put the aircraft through its paces, ensuring it will be ready for fielding in 2023.

“Aircraft and personnel will remain under AMC authorities as they validate desired learning objectives,” Herbert said. However, “they will support real-world, theater operational missions as required.”

AMC spokesman Col. Damien Pickart further clarified that the KC-46 has already been tasked by US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) to do operational refueling missions over Eastern Europe.

Pickart noted the tanker is restricted from refueling NATO and certain US aircraft, such as the A-10 Warthog. However, it is now cleared to pass fuel to more than 85% of US aircraft types — most recently the stealthy F-35 and F-22, as announced by TRANSCOM commander Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost on Thursday.

Although Air Mobility Command declined to provide details of the types of missions the KC-46 has been performing, aircraft spotters using open source flight tracking software have uncovered examples.

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Rick Francona, a former US Air Force intelligence officer who has tracked military aircraft flights over Europe, appears to be the first to have spotted the KC-46 as it made its way to Europe on March 13, and again on March 28, when he tweeted a map of tanker activity that showed the KC-46 apparently on its first operational refueling mission over Europe.

A day later, Francona tweeted open-source flight information showing a KC-46 with the callsign PICO40 as it refueled a B-52 bomber over Germany.

By that point, several other plane spotters had caught on to the new tanker’s flight activity. On March 30, one spotter tweeted the flight routes of two KC-46s — callsigned PICO60 and PICO61 — as they circled over Poland.

The KC-46s and airmen participating in the employment exercise came from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing and 931st Air Refueling Wing from McConnell AFB, Kan., the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H., and the 916th Air Refueling Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.

“With the KC-46A now approved to conduct most of its missions, this exercise offers another step to move towards full operational capability,” Herbert said. “It will also provide additional refueling capacity and free up KC-135 and KC-10 aircraft for other operational taskings.”

The KC-46s were not requested by US European Command or USAFE, Pickart added.

The KC-46’s operation in Europe is a sign of confidence in a tanker that has had a rough development period beset with numerous cost overruns and lengthy schedule delays.

The program has racked up a total of $5.4 billion in pre-tax charges over the course of its development — more than the $4.9 billion contract that Boeing won to develop the KC-46 in 2011. Due to the terms of the fixed-price contract, Boeing is locked into paying for any cost overruns.

Meanwhile, the program continues to work through numerous critical deficiencies, including problems with the Remote Vision System that provides video and infrared imagery of a receiver aircraft  to the boom operator during a refueling.

Air Force leaders have stressed that the KC-46 won’t be declared fully operational until these issues are resolved, which won’t be until 2023 at earliest. However, the service has slowly ramped up operational use of the tanker as it proves itself in testing and exercises.

“Since January 2019, the KC-46A has routinely conducted missions in the US as well as overseas in the Pacific, Middle East and Europe,” Herbert said. “This latest employment of the KC-46A to Europe represents yet another step in the aircraft moving towards full operational capability.”

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