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March 9, 2006—At last week’s Capitol Hill hearing to discuss Air Force plans to replace the current fleet of aerial refuelers, four witnesses faced an oft-repeated question: Why now?—and stood their ground.

Lawmakers rolled out references to numerous pre-9/11 studies that said the present KC-135 fleet was good until at least 2040; yet, now, they said, the Air

What Else Was Said on the Hill

Cannot accept risk of systemic failure

Retire oldest KC-135Es

Give me tankers first

Best option, commercial derivative

Backing a hybrid tanker

Fixing more problems, faster

Unprecedented age

Thumbs down on unmanned refueler

Force claimed 2030 was the deadline, and they asked why the Air Force position had changed.

The core answer, according to the witnesses, is that the on average 45-year-old tankers are being used more, leading to unforeseen age issues and increasing maintenance cost. There is also the issue of capabilities. The current fleets lacks modern capabilities like defensive systems and floors and doors—all of which would make them much more versatile and effective.

The witnesses were: Lt. Gen. Donald Hoffman, USAF’s military acquisition deputy; Lt. Gen. Christopher Kelly, Air Mobility Command vice commander; Lt. Gen. Donald Wetekam, Air Staff logistics head; and Michael Kennedy, a principle author of the Rand Analysis of Alternatives on tankers.

Kelly told members of the House Armed Services Projection Forces Subcommittee that the performance of the 114 KC-135E models—the oldest of the tankers—is “so poor that we cannot use them in the desert.” Thirty-seven of them sit unused, as far too costly to make flyable or operate.

As the aircraft get older, said Kelly, the Air Force finds new problems, such as air cycling motors in the air conditioning system that have started breaking apart, which could send metal shards into a fuel tank.

Some lawmakers wanted to know why the service was not considering converting E models to R models, as had been done in the past. Rep. James Marshall (D-Ga.) claimed, “It is cost-effective to convert to Rs,” and, while a converted tanker would not have the capabilities of a modern aircraft, “it will do.” Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), subcommittee chairman, had similar views about the E model, saying that the re-engining to produce an R model included replacing problematic wing struts and, in his view, would provide three longer-lasting aircraft for the price of one.

Hoffman replied that even converting an E to an R does not solve all structural issues. The depots “find major [components] and skinning issues” on R models “that have to be replaced.”

Rand’s Kennedy explained that the AOA looked at converting Es to Rs and found it would produce “some increase in effectiveness but not a major one.”

Hoffman noted that if the service retired the oldest KC-135Es by 2010, it would save, through Fiscal 2030, about $6.1 billion, approximately the cost of 50 new aircraft. He also explained that the cost to convert the Es had gone up from $37 million each to about $50 million per aircraft.

According to Kennedy, the AOA projects a “pretty steep increase” in cost to keep KC-135s flying until 2040. And, the cost really jumps around 2020, he said, because the Air Force will need to make “major structural repairs,” essentially replacing “whole parts” of the aircraft to deal with corrosion and other issues.

The AOA’s “best projection” is that the “savings one would get from the KC-135 retirements over time would amortize” purchase of new aircraft, said Kennedy. What the AOA could not do, he noted, was project a date at which the KC-135s “become unflyable.” It does note, he said, that there is “substantial uncertainty” about costs and whether the aircraft can fly until 2040. The problems and cost are going to grow, asserted Kennedy, adding, “There could be things that could cause substantial decreases in availability”—read that as, a systemic failure could ground the fleet. 

Undeterred, Bartlett maintained that the real issue was one of priority. He asked, “How urgent is this recapitalization of the tanker fleet compared, for instance, to one of the new aircraft systems?” He asked for a priority list of all the services.

To which Hoffman replied, “The debate has already occurred within the Department of Defense.” The “wedge of money that’s in the Future Years Defense Plan is sufficient to be the leading edge for procurement of new [tanker] aircraft.”