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Keeping KC-135 Stratotankers, like the one seen above taxiing at Travis AFB, Calif., means pulling retired aircraft back into the fleet. USAF photo by TSgt. James Hodgman.

​Air Mobility Command, while it is pushing for delivery of the next generation KC-46 tanker next year, is moving forward on continued upgrades for its KC-135 fleet to keep the aging aircraft flying, and is pulling retired aircraft back into the fleet to build up its force structure, AMC Commander Gen. Carlton Everhart said at ASC17.

The KC-46 program still has its “heaviest testing” ahead, he said. While the program has faced several delays, AMC is confident it will get the aircraft next year.

“We will get the airplane in 2018, in my humble opinion,” Everhart said. “We will have a good aircraft, I believe, when we get the product. I don’t really need the aircraft right now, I need the aircraft when it’s ready.”

The most recent setback for the KC-46 was a “Category One” deficiency spotted during testing, when the refueling boom caused scrapes on receiving aircraft. The scrapes were reportedly bad enough that they could damage the stealth coating of aircraft such as the F-22, F-35, and B-2. The Air Force did not detail the number of incidents where this occurred, but Everhart said Tuesday the service is watching the response to the incidents, and it is possible the issue, if not fixed, could delay deliveries of the first tankers.

USAF is in the midst of block upgrades for its KC-135 fleet and other modernization, which includes new autopilot systems, glass cockpits, and other updates aimed at keeping the tanker viable until 2040 or so, Everhart said.

The command is also moving to bring more airlifters into its fleet by going to the backup supply. AMC is activating eight C-5Ms that were in backup inventory since sequestration in 2013 and putting them back into the operational fleet, Everhart said Tuesday. The service is also moving 16 C-17s, which were previously in the service’s backup aircraft inventory, to Air National Guard units.