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Shaheen pushes defense nominee for KC-46A tanker upgrades at Pease

Pressed by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin committed to a $550 million upgrade to the new fleet of KC-46A tankers at the New Hampshire Air National Guard base at Pease.

Shaheen questioned Austin as he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 19.

The new fleet, which cost billions of dollars, has been hampered since arriving at Pease in 2019. The aircraft need improvements to the Remote Vision Systems model, which are cameras and sensors used by the new tankers. The cost of the upgrades is expected to be more than $550 million for the fleet of 12, with the final KC-46A in the fleet expected at Pease next month.

Shaheen raised the "continuing issues" of getting the updated RVS model online and available for use, saying she hopes the incoming Department of Defense will continue to work on the upgrades.

"I will absolutely stay on this issue," said Austin, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the nation's first Black secretary of defense. "I think it's critical, it’s a critical component of our overall force and so I think it’s important that we continue to press and get this capability where it needs to be."In July, Col. Jeffrey Cole, the KC-46 program integration officer, said the RVS is "usable with some limitations" and that the 157th Refueling Wing has still been able to conduct some refueling missions.

Last April, Boeing, the KC-46 tanker’s primary contractor, came to an agreement with the Air Force to overhaul the RVS model and revamp it to a new and improved "RVS 2.0," which is expected to be online for use by 2023 or 2024, according to Defense News.

RVS 2.0 will "include new 4k color cameras with proper viewing geometry, larger and higher definition screens for the boom operator, a laser ranger for refueling aircraft distance measurement, and augmented reality," Air Force Magazine added.

The publication later reported that the RVS 2.0 overhaul will cost $551 million.

On Saturday, KC-46A tankers helped ferry National Guard members from New Hampshire and at least two other states, as well as their equipment, to Washington D.C. ahead of the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The event was staffed with extra military and police personnel from across America following security concerns raised by the Capitol insurrection by a pro-Trump mob two weeks ago.

The first KC-46A tankers arrived at Pease in March 2019 to replace the KC-135 tanker from the era of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Shaheen raises Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, too

Additionally, Shaheen told Austin one of her long-term concerns is the implementation of the Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program (SIOP) at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and said she hoped Austin would remain committed to the plan.

The SIOP is a 20-year, $21 billion effort to modernize the infrastructure at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the Navy’s three other public shipyards: the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility and the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility.

"That optimization plan is going to be critical to ensuring that the capacity is there not just at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but our other public shipyards to support our naval fleet," said Shaheen, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Austin said he would remain committed to the optimization plan, which was established in May 2018.

Regarding the optimization plan, the Naval Sea Systems Command’s website states, "To create the shipyards that our nation needs requires making significant investments to modernize dry docks, optimize industrial processes and modernize standard equipment to bring these critical industrial sites to modern standards."