This flight crew training is conducted at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, consisting of academic, simulator and flight portions. In anticipation of receiving KC-46s, Tokyo sent Japan Air Self-Defense Force personnel to Altus to complete this training, and the U.S. Air Force should ensure Israelis have the same opportunity. An initial cadre of Israeli KC-46 maintenance personnel, who would later train other Israelis, could also be trained in the United States.
Admittedly, as the U.S. Air Force ramps up its fielding of the KC-46, many of these training programs and schools may have limited slots, and the Pentagon cannot afford to delay the training of American airmen. To avoid that scenario and ensure Israel has the necessary personnel trained in time, Congress should work with the Air Force now to ensure the U.S. KC-46 training base has the necessary resources, personnel and throughput for FY23 and beyond.
Once the Israeli personnel are trained, the Pentagon and Israel’s Defense Ministry should use the U.S. Air Force’s Military Personnel Exchange Program to embed some Israeli pilots as well as crew and maintenance personnel in U.S. Air Force units already operating the KC-46. That will create valuable opportunities for Americans and Israelis to share best practices, increasing the readiness of both air forces and improving their ability to operate together.
As a potential hurdle to this plan, some might cite the fact that the U.S. Air Force is not expected to declare the KC-46 has reached initial or full operational capability before 2024, but that misses the point.
The U.S. Air Force’s KC-46s have already flown over 10,000 missions since January 2019, operating above every continent except for Antarctica. That includes four U.S. KC-46s operating from Morón Air Base in Spain and conducting air refueling over Germany and Poland for U.S. fighters and bombers bolstering NATO’s eastern front following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite some of its development challenges, the KC-46 is already approved to refuel 85% of the aircraft in the Pentagon’s inventory that are capable of aerial refueling.
Accordingly, once Israelis start to complete the KC-46 training in the U.S., there will be ample opportunities to embed them in U.S. Air Force KC-46 units conducting operations.
To reinforce these programs, Air Mobility Command, working with Central Command, should also look for opportunities to forward deploy U.S. KC-46s to Israel for a few weeks or months, just as Air Mobility Command is already doing in Europe. That would help Israelis prepare for the arrival of their own KC-46s and answer open questions regarding the tanker’s ability to refuel Israeli F-16I fighter aircraft.
From an American perspective, such a plan would also support the Pentagon’s dynamic force employment concept and the Air Force’s agile combat employment concept.
Dynamic force employment, introduced in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, seeks to employ U.S. combat power with more agility and flexibility. As commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Tod Wolters testified on March 29 the concept’s goal is “to demonstrate operational unpredictability to adversaries, improve deterrence and support allies.”
Similarly, the Air Force describes its doctrine of agile combat employment as a means “to assure allies and partner nations of US support, alter adversary or enemy understanding of friendly intentions and capabilities, posture to deter aggression, or gain a positional advantage.”
The temporary forward deployment of U.S. KC-46s to Israel would directly support these American warfighting concepts.
In addition, the Air Force should consider sending KC-46s to participate in future iterations of the Greek-hosted Iniochos military exercise and the Israeli-hosted Blue Flag exercise. That would enhance U.S.-Israel military interoperability and provide Israeli fighter pilots with opportunities to practice refueling with the KC-46 in a realistic training environment.
If the U.S. Air Force and Congress act now to help Israel prepare for the arrival of its KC-46s, they can minimize the time between receipt of the aircraft and their employment in combat operations. That will be good for both Israel and the United States.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Enia Krivine is senior director of the Israel Program. Follow Bradley and Enia on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman and @EKrivine. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.