September 2, 2022 | Insight

Pentagon Announces Contract for Israeli KC-46s but Has More Work To Do

September 2, 2022 | Insight

Pentagon Announces Contract for Israeli KC-46s but Has More Work To Do

The Pentagon announced on Wednesday an up to $927 million foreign military sale contract with Boeing to provide Israel four KC-46A air refueling aircraft, with the first currently expected to arrive in 2025. Signing the contract this summer locks in Jerusalem’s place in the queue for the aircraft and avoids delaying delivery by another year, but the Pentagon and Israeli Ministry of Defense should take several additional steps now to minimize the time between Israel’s receipt of the aircraft and when they can be employed in combat operations.

The KC-46A is a tanker aircraft, designed to refuel other aircraft while in flight. This can significantly extend the range of fighters such as the F-15, F-16, and F-35, including the Israeli Air Force’s versions of these aircraft. In a statement shared with FDD on Thursday, a U.S. Air Force official said the “KC-46 is capable of refueling Israel’s entire fleet of 4th and 5th generation fighters and will be completely interoperable with U.S. and allied aircraft — expanding opportunities for future international exercises and partnership in the Middle East.”

Israel is particularly eager to acquire the KC-46A because its current handful of Re’em Boeing 707 tankers are decades old, suffer from reliability problems, and are less capable than the KC-46A.

In combat missions, air refueling enables pilots to reach targets farther afield, loiter for longer periods to re-attack targets if necessary, and return home safely. That could prove decisive if Israel decides it has no choice but to launch military strikes in an effort to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program, given the distance between the two countries and the difficulties associated with destroying some of the likely targets.

The Biden administration is wise to welcome an enhanced Israeli capability to strike Iran’s nuclear program, understanding that the credible threat of such an attack provides the United States with additional coercive leverage when dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, as then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz told an audience at Kansas State University in 1984, “Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table.”

“It is vital to U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability,” and this “sale is consistent with those objectives,” the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) noted in March 2020 when providing initial approval of the possible sale of KC-46s to Israel. The sale “further supports the foreign policy and national security of the United States by allowing Israel to provide a redundant capability to U.S. assets within the region, potentially freeing U.S. assets for use elsewhere during times of war,” DSCA observed.

While finalizing the contract this summer is an important development to avoid additional delays, now is not the time for the United States and Israel to rest on their laurels. Congress should continue to press the Pentagon and industry to expedite the delivery of the KC-46s to the militaries of the United States, Israel, and Japan (which is also procuring the KC-46).

Beyond that, there is much more than can be done to reduce the amount of time between delivery and when the Israeli Air Force will be able to use its KC-46s in real missions, as previous FDD research has detailed. Here are four specific steps to take now:

  1. Congress should ensure the U.S. Air Force has enough resources to allocate training slots to Israeli personnel in KC-46-related courses at Altus Air Force Base in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, following the example of how Japanese personnel were trained in advance of the initial KC-46A delivery to that country.
  2. Once the Israeli personnel are trained, the U.S. Air Force’s Military Personnel Exchange Program should embed Israeli pilots, crews, and maintenance personnel in U.S. Air Force units that already operate the KC-46, so the service members can share best practices and improve interoperability.
  3. U.S. Air Mobility Command (AMC), working with U.S. Central Command, should look for opportunities to forward deploy U.S. KC-46s to Israel for a few weeks or months, as AMC already does in Europe. This would help Israel prepare for the arrival of its own tankers and support the Pentagon’s “dynamic force employment” concept and the Air Force’s “agile combat employment” concept.
  4. The U.S. 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. Doing so would enhance interoperability and provide Israeli pilots with opportunities to practice refueling from the KC-46 in a realistic training environment.

The contract announced this week is good news for the United States and Israel, but there is more work to do to ensure America’s best ally in the Middle East has the capabilities it needs to help secure our common interests.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. For more analysis from Brad, Ryan, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Brad on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Israel Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy