U.S. Must Expedite Delivery of KC-46A Aerial Refueling Tanker to Israel

Iran has arrived at the nuclear threshold. It has already enriched uranium to just shy of weapons grade and could make a bomb’s worth of fissile material in just days. It is essential that the United States and its partners work together to deter and prevent Iran from advancing any further. One critical component of that deterrence is the new KC-46A aerial refueling tanker and ensuring that Israel receives, and is ready to fly, these aircraft as soon as possible.

Deterring Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability is a vital U.S. national security interest. Each of the last four presidents has pledged to prevent a nuclear Iran because they understood that if the brutal regime in Tehran were to acquire such a dangerous weapon, it would threaten the existence of U.S. regional partners, trigger a proliferation cascade, endanger the free flow of energy, and distract from other U.S. priorities, such as competing with Russia and China.

The United States has the necessary capability to target Iran’s nuclear facilities, but the Biden administration appears unwilling to launch a strike. Yet the United States can contribute to deterrence against Iran, with minimal cost to itself, by enhancing Israel’s ability to launch a preventive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The KC-46A tanker would provide the single greatest boost to Israeli capabilities against Iran and demonstrate U.S. support for its Israeli partner.

Currently, if Israel needs to launch a strike against Iran, it will face a trade-off between having its aircraft carry more fuel to extend operations or larger payloads to strike more targets. Midair refueling solves this problem by enabling aircraft to carry more and larger payloads and sufficient fuel to complete the missions.

Israel’s ability to operate at range, however, is limited because it operates roughly 50-year-old Ram refueling tankers, with limited refueling capacity and speed, not to mention defenses. The advanced and largely autonomous KC-46A would be a major upgrade. It can refuel three jets simultaneously in three to four minutes and has cutting-edge defensive systems.

Israeli KC-46As would not only benefit Israel’s refueling operations but, since they are interoperable with U.S. aircraft, would also expand U.S. capabilities in the Middle East — without the United States having to pay to station and maintain tankers in the region.

The United States has already agreed to sell Israel these modern tankers. In September 2021, the Pentagon announced a $927 million foreign military sale contract with Boeing to provide Israel with four KC-46As. But the first aircraft is not expected to arrive before 2025, after Iran could acquire nuclear weapons capability.

Nor does it appear that Israeli pilots have been given the opportunity to train on flying or refueling the KC-46 to ensure that they are ready to use it as soon as it is delivered. For example, despite U.S. KC-46A aircraft participating in the recent Juniper Oak military exercise, the largest ever U.S.-Israeli drill, they did not refuel Israeli aircraft, a missed opportunity to promote interoperability and training.

The clear benefit to U.S. national interests and regional security that Israeli operation of the KC-46A would provide is why the Mach-1 Caucus is proud to sponsor a bipartisan and bicameral bill encouraging the secretary of the Air Force to prepare Israel to fly this advanced tanker as soon as possible.

As former military aviators, or having had lead oversight role of our military’s air capabilities, the Mach-1 Caucus believes that it is critical for the Air Force to begin immediately training Israeli pilots how to fly, maintain and refuel the KC-46A.

Beyond ensuring that Israeli KC-46A, F-15I and F-35 pilots get trained on the KC-46A as soon as possible, it is also critical for the United States to expedite the tankers’ delivery. With Boeing producing roughly two of the aircraft each month and having already delivered 68 tankers to the Air Force, expediting the delivery of two KC-46As to Israel does not impose an undue burden on the U.S. acquisition process.

It would, however, provide immense benefit for Israeli refueling operations and CENTCOM in-theater capabilities. The bill, therefore, requires the Department of Defense to forward-deploy at least one KC-46A in Israel until it receives its first tanker in 2025, which would serve as a powerful and consistent deterrent against Iran.

Airpower, not just our own but that of our partners as well, is a vital component of regional security. The United States should provide Israel with KC-46A tankers and train its pilots without further delay to ensure this uniquely capable partner can continue to defend itself and U.S. interests.

August Pfluger is a congressman representing the 11th District in Texas; he is a member of the House Mach 1 Caucus. Rob Wittman is a congressman representing the 1st District in Virginia; he is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee. Chris Stewart is a congressman representing the 2nd District in Utah; he is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Defense Subcommittee. Michael Makovsky is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Originally published in Washington Times.