Weapon Systems

Data links, threat detection enable more than just refueling for the KC-46A Pegasus


The next-generation KC-46A Pegasus is capable of refueling military aircraft more efficiently than its predecessors, but additional capabilities also position it to play a key combat role during hostilities.

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A KC-46 Pegasus carries out aerial refueling testing with an E-4B Nightwatch in the skies over Southern California on April 4, 2022. [US Air Force]
A KC-46 Pegasus carries out aerial refueling testing with an E-4B Nightwatch in the skies over Southern California on April 4, 2022. [US Air Force]

The KC-46A Pegasus, the US Air Force (USAF)'s latest strategic military aircraft, is capable of more than just refueling.

It can provide data as well as fuel to the joint force; convert quickly among passenger, cargo and aeromedical evacuation modes; and detect and avoid threats, according to its manufacturer.

The Pegasus' adaptability comes from its defensive countermeasures that enable it to detect and avoid threats "using several layers of electronic protection that enable it to operate safely in medium-threat environments," according to Military Aerospace.

The Pegasus is capable of being equipped with the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) system, which combines missile warning and infrared laser jamming systems to protect the aircraft from guided missiles.

The LAIRCM is designed to allow the tanker to refuel in combat zones and deter enemy ordnance, improving its ability to support air refueling worldwide.

"The KC-46 is designed to go deeper into combat zones that other tankers may not have been able to access before," Tech. Sgt. Spencer Balint, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron laser safety officer, said in a USAF release in August 2020.

"This will benefit the KC-46 because it allows the aircraft to move one step further toward war and deployment readiness," said Balint.

"This creates the potential for us to perform aeromedical evacuations while equipped with self-defense systems to protect the aircraft."

The KC-46A is also equipped with data links and Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) integration, allowing it to feed tactical situational awareness data and real-time information to allied warfighters across multiple domains.

As part of the ABMS program, communications "pods" were to be designed and purchased and installed on a select number of KC-46 Pegasus tankers, according to the USAF.

The pods would essentially act as internet hotspots that could allow other aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II to "log on" and easily and instantly receive and transmit a wealth of data and information.

Advanced refueling

The KC-46A Pegasus represents the "beginning of a new era in air-to-air refueling capability," according to the USAF.

The plane has been in service with the USAF since 2019. The USAF intends to procure 179 KC-46A aircraft by 2027, 76 of which have already been delivered as of January 2024.

The Pegasus can seat two pilots and a boom operator, and includes space for 12 additional crew members.

The rear fuselage can accommodate 58 passengers or 18 pallets of cargo, depending on the configuration.

The Pegasus can carry 212,299 lbs (96,297kg) of fuel -- 12,299 lbs (5,579kg) more than its predecessor, the legacy KC-135 Stratotanker -- and 65,000 lbs (29,483kg) of cargo.

When it comes to refueling capacity, the Pegasus is equipped with a refueling boom driven by a fly-by-wire control system, along with a hose and drogue system that is independently operable from the boom system, allowing for additional mission capability.

The aircraft is also capable of being equipped with wing aerial refueling pods, which allow it to refuel two aircraft at the same time -- as opposed to the majority of the USAF tanker fleet, which use only a centerline drogue system capable of refueling only one aircraft at a time.

In July 2023, KC-46A tankers took part in the Air Force's Mobility Guardian 23, a multinational mobility exercise including 70 mobility aircraft that spanned more than 13 million square miles in the Indo-Pacific.

The tankers flew sorties of up to 35 hours straight and showed their ability to carry out complex, long-duration missions to refuel fighters and other aircraft, Air Force officials told Defense News.

Aerial refueling is especially crucial in a theater where the ability to land and refuel is limited, the USAF Air Mobility Command said in a news release.

"Air refueling is king in this theater and these [tactics, techniques and procedures] demonstrate we can keep our capabilities airborne when it matters," Lt. Col. Jake Parker, Exercise Mobility Guardian 23 director, said in the release.

"We're taking the time to learn how to do this now, safely, in a more controlled manner rather than be forced to learn it later out of necessity when the consequences are potentially more severe."

The mobility exercise, which included more than 3,000 service members from Australia, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, also demonstrated interoperability of combined forces, the Air Mobility Command said.

"The relationships and integration with our allies and partners as well as the joint force was paramount. We experienced the geography together, we learned together," said Gen. Mike Minihan, Air Mobility Command commander.

"Our combined ability to project into theater, line up on priorities and to achieve unity of effort and action were proven here."

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