Israel’s endless saga of KC-46 refuelers and Iran

Israel’s acquisition of long-range tanker aircraft has always taken place in the shadow of potential conflict with Iran.

A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus sits on the tarmac at Boeing facilities at Boeing Field in this aerial photo in Seattle, Washington, U.S. (photo credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON)
A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus sits on the tarmac at Boeing facilities at Boeing Field in this aerial photo in Seattle, Washington, U.S.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON)

Reports indicated over the last year that Israel was seeking to speed up delivery of KC-46A refuelers, a type of tanker aircraft that can aid long-range operations. Israel has purchased two of the advanced aircraft.

Israel’s acquisition of long-range tanker aircraft has always taken place in the shadow of potential conflict with Iran. However, stories that the Jewish state wants the procurement to happen faster, or that the delivery is happening slower than desired, may be timed more for reports of Iran tensions than reflecting the reality of complex expensive procurement.

A new report at Ynet claimed that “the Biden administration has rejected Israel’s request to expedite delivery of two KC-46 refueling jets out of four purchased, which would facilitate IAF flights to attack Iran.” The KC-46A Pegasus is based on the 767 jet airliner.

The saga of the jets and the implications that a slower delivery might set back any confrontation with Iran only appear to be linked. If Israel had wanted to upgrade its refueler fleet – some 50 years old – it could and should have done it years ago. This appears to be one more product of the Netanyahu era – tough talk on Iran threats, while preparations were lacking. Israel currently uses modified Boeing 707s as tankers.

Let’s look at the details of the current report. It claims that “the ministerial committee for military procurement decided on the purchase of four refueling jets as part of the military’s preparations… The Boeing jets would allow dozens of Israeli bombers to remain airborne for up to 12 hours at a range of over 11,000 km. (6,835 miles). They are critical to any operation against Iran – which is more than 1,000 km. (621 miles) away from Israel’s borders.”

The fact is that Israel did decide in February that it will purchase two KC-46 tankers and a letter of acceptance for the deal was signed. Israel planned to use the Foreign Military Financing program for this purchase according to Defense News. The deal had already been approved by the US State Department in March 2020. Later reports in October 2021 at various websites said Israel wanted to increase the number of tankers it was acquiring from two to four and to speed up delivery.

 A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus sits on the tarmac at Boeing facilities at Boeing Field in this aerial photo in Seattle, Washington, US (credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON) A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus sits on the tarmac at Boeing facilities at Boeing Field in this aerial photo in Seattle, Washington, US (credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON)

Back in September 2020, online newsletter Breaking Defense had reported that “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked President Donald Trump today for 12 Boeing V-22s, another squadron of F-35s to bring the total to 75, and the very early delivery of two Boeing KC-46As at the White House.”

Prior to the September report, another July story at The Jerusalem Post had claimed that, “despite not having signed a Letter of Approval with Boeing for the company’s KC-46A tanker program, Israel has asked the United States to advance the acquisition of two out of eight tankers that are required for long-range missions.”

A source said at the time that this was accurate and that Israel’s Defense Ministry wanted this swap. But the details – like most of the saga – were never confirmed. There were questions over budgets at the time. Israel was in the midst of its endless elections that it had in April 2019, September 2019, March 2020 and March 2021. The country receives $3.3 billion in foreign military financing every year under a Memorandum of Understanding with the US.

BACK IN March 2020, there were still challenges facing the aircraft itself. Aviation International News Online said at the time that the “Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress on March 3 that the US State Department had approved a potential Foreign Military Sale to Israel of the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker. Worth an estimated $2.4 billion, the proposed purchase includes up to eight aircraft.”

A letter of request had been sent to Congress in May 2019 from Israel, the report said. “The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has a pressing need to replace its elderly fleet of Boeing 707-300 Re’em tankers, some of which have been in service since 1977. In 2019 the fleet was temporarily grounded, but only as a precaution following an accident suffered by a C-130 Hercules. Such is the urgency for a new tanker that it has been reported that Israel has inquired about early delivery of two KC-46As, taking over production slots currently filled by US Air Force aircraft.”

Back then, the USAF was nonplussed with the aircraft, which had been under development and production since 2011. In March 2020, Air Force Magazine said that “Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Senate legislators on March 3 the service will not use the new KC-46 tanker unless absolutely necessary.” The aircraft had been first delivered to the US Air Force in 2019, after reported delays. By June 2020 the 34th aircraft had been delivered, and the first was delivered to Japan in October 2021. Japan has ordered four of the aircraft, after asking for one back in 2017.

The saga goes back even further though. In 2013, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had come to the Middle East and reports said the US had signed off on sales of KC-135s that would be a “signal” to Iran. In 2008 the Post reported that the US had rejected a request for KC-767 aircraft because it might “appear to support an Israeli strike on Iran.”

This is the seemingly endless saga of Israel’s attempts to acquire and then waiting to decide on acquiring long-range tankers. That being said, it’s not clear that the current report reflects reality. There has been a lot of messaging recently in the media about Israel-Iran tensions. This has included leaks and other details circulated. This includes reports of Jerusalem’s preparations for potential conflict with Tehran, concerns over the US reentering some kind of Iran deal, concerns over Iran’s enrichment of uranium and a recent trip by Defense Minister Benny Gantz to the US.

Because procurement of aircraft takes a long time and because budgets must be allocated and aircraft built – and then pilots trained on the new systems before the aircraft even arrive and become operational – it stands to reason that the various reports about speeding up delivery are not a simple matter of just grabbing some aircraft from the production line and flying them over.

Considering the Iran tensions and the known timelines relating to Iran’s enrichment and Iran deal discussions in Vienna, the fact that the aircraft are not already in Israel reflects the long pipeline and tail that procurement inevitably includes. That Israel fumbled over a defense budget for years and waited to decide on the aircraft is part of the story as well.