I am not an advocate for privatized AR, but I think privatized AR has a place in the USAF just like contract ADAIR or TES support. But this is a slippery slope. There are a lot of second and third order effects to the tanker force if we start contracting out AR. Namely, MAC, er...I mean AMC will say "let's keep all of the tanker dudes down range while contract AR accomplishes stateside AR requirements and CORONET movements to just outside the AOR." Also, I have a hard time placing such a strategic capability in the hands of contract officers and contractors.
I am not sure of the most current numbers, but the RAF has a mix of "military" and non-military KC2s/3s that can fly both as military and civilian jets. IIRC, the RAF has a total of 15 jets at their disposal, but out of the 15, three or four of them would retain civilian liveries, registration numbers and would not have the AAR kit installed. And the RAF does not own the jets, it is similar to the 767 lease debacles of the 1990s. Besides the jet issue, there is a very complicated crew force mix that includes RAF Active Duty, reserves and civilian contractors that can fly the jet in different and very limited roles. So not only does the RAF not own the jets, but they may lack the capability to task jets to hack the mission down-range. Unlike the USAF, the RAF, Canadians and other militaries use their tankers to transport their forces downrange and back. So in the RAF example, a KC2 or 3 could be flying with a contract aircrew with a bunch of SAS dudes in the back bound for Muscat. The jet lands and off-loads the PAX, and now the RAF wants to put that jet into the ATO. Unfortunately they can't, and now the RAF has to fly dudes out commercial to pick up the ATO line and fly the civilians back to the UK. The Airbus-LM handshake doesn't address this issue. There's a lot of thought that needs to be put into this.
Honestly, the Airbus is over-hyped and the latest Airbus-LM photo shoot is mostly political, IMHO. However, I was glad to see it. Boeing took a lot for granted, and so did USAF. Believe me, I fly the KC-135 and love it, and I'm glad we're getting another Boeing tanker, but damn it LeMay would have gone somewhere else if this shit was going down in 1955. Put a damn boom sighting window in the back of the KC-46 and tell the FAA to go fvck themselves because of airworthiness requirements.
But, the USAF's current state of tankers is embarrassing. The 135 has a lot of life left, but right now the SPO is way behind the power curve to keep the jet ICW basic airspace regulations. And let's not talk about the jet's ability to survive in a near-peer threat. We are so limited in SA because MAC/SPO/USAF in general just assumed the 135 would go away. Now, it'll be 2050 before the jet retires and everyone is scrambling to figure out how to get gas to the shooters and survive tankers to fly another ATO.
The KC-46 does a great job on paper in this regard. It is supposed to have the sensors, Link, etc capabilities to fly in a near-peer environment and accomplish its primary mission of AR. But right now none of that is proven. So, in the mean-time, we have to figure out how to fight a war with legacy tankers while fielding a new jet.
Eventually, I truly do feel the 46 will be able to get the job done and provide SA to not only tanker crews but anyone who is on the Link. But that will leave a big gap in a strategic tanker realm. And that is where I agree with you. Put a boom and MPRS on the 777 and call it good, with a boom sighting window. The USAF will always need a strategic tanker to get fighters downrange, and that is where the KC-10 excels. The 777 can fill that role with ease, and every 135 and 46 crew dawg out there will be more than happy to consol into it, sts.