Aging Air Force Tankers: Flying In The Face Of Danger

Posted on Fri 02/26/2010 by


By Mackenzie Eaglen

TonyfromOz prefaces …..

The image is that of the aging KC 135 Tanker refueling an F 16 Fighting Falcon. For a little more detail on the Tankers, see the update at the bottom of this post.

This week, the U.S. Air Force presented its revised request for proposals for the new KC-X tanker aircraft.  Industry now has 60 days to submit bids, and the contract for the new tankers should be awarded sometime this summer.

A new tanker is long overdue after a much-delayed and mismanaged process.   …  

An AOL News story from earlier this week paints an alarming picture of the decrepit tanker fleet.  The KC-135 Stratotanker planes the Air Force flies today were built during the Eisenhower administration, and many are more than 50 years old.  AOL News describes how they often need to be grounded with leaks or broken parts, sometimes for weeks on end as Air Force engineers cannibalize old tankers in the “Boneyard” near Davis-Monthan Base in Arizona for spare parts or recreate them from scratch.

Under President Obama’s current budget plans, the Air Force will have to fly some KC-135 tankers until they are over 80 years old.  Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute warns that nobody knows whether this is feasible or safe, and AOL News cautions that “structural fatigue and corrosion pose the greatest threat.”  The risk of structural damage is rising as demanding wartime missions cause additional wear and tear.

The flying clunkers are also becoming a drain on resources.  Half-century old tankers burn an exorbitant amount of fuel and cost a great deal to maintain and repair.

Why does this all matter?  Tankers are indispensable to military success on the battlefield and maintaining operations around the world.

They provide aerial refueling for military aircraft and also serve as cargo carriers and medical transport aircraft when needed, flying wounded troops from Afghanistan to military hospitals in Germany, for example. “Without tankers, fighters aren’t going anywhere. If you lose the air bridge, you lose your ability to keep airplanes up,” an Air Force general told AOL News. “They are absolutely critical to every combat operation in the ability to project power.”

It is not only essential the Pentagon develop new tankers quickly, but also that its leaders do so in a way that encourages innovation and reaps the benefits of competition. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday that he was “very hopeful” the RFP would include bids from two competitors—both Boeing and Northrop Grumman.  But this is not assured.

As Heritage has repeatedly warned, our bomber pilots and carrier aircraft pilots may soon find themselves in a similar predicament, unless Congress works to increase the emphasis on recapitalization as the defense budget bills move this spring.  The bottom line remains that the military needs a new tanker yesterday and no one should tolerate any further delays in fielding this critical platform as quickly as possible.

TonyfromOz adds …..

The KC 135 Tanker in the image is a development of the Boeing 707, first flown in 1954, and the first KC 135 tanker version flying in 1957, making these aircraft the oldest aircraft in the USAF inventory still in active service, after 53 years. The other airborne refuelling aircraft is the KC 10 a development of the Douglas DC 10, the KC 10 being in service since 1980, even these now 30 years old. There are still around 200 KC 135’s in active service with the USAF, some in Reserve, and around 200 still serving with the State Air National Guards. For the KC 10, there are still around 50 with the USAF and the Reserve.

This is the second time this has gone out to tender, the first fraught with problems, and then further beset by legal problems, before being abandoned. The two contenders at that time were the derivatives of the Boeing 767, and the Northrop Grumman KC 30, this second aircraft basically a derivative of the European Airbus A330, but satisfying the US part of the deal by being constructed in the US from components delivered from Europe. The European aircraft was chosen, but Boeing then took out legal action, and the Tender process ended up being abandoned.

Mackenzie Eaglen contributes articles at The Heritage Foundation and is a Research Fellow for National Security Studies at the Douglas and Sarah Allison Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.

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