• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Aging Air Force Tankers: Flying in the Face of Danger

    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.

    Posted in Security [slideshow_deploy]

    8 Responses to Aging Air Force Tankers: Flying in the Face of Danger

    1. Tom, Pennsylvania says:

      Our government drags it feet on something as important as this, but yet they spend billions of dollars in the Defense Budget to buy things the Pentagon doesn't even want or ask for. Pork and earmarks should go away or the Senator or Representative who submits them should be voted out of office. We should be using the money for things we really need. We must reduce the deficit that is nearing $14 Trillion before our economy implodes. Where will all these great leaders in the House and Senate be when things come crashing down? Who will they blame? Another example of a Congress out of touch with reality and what the American people really want.

    2. Les Stewart, South C says:

      I served in the USAF during the last years of the Vietnam "experience" and worked on and with the KC-135 and its variants. The KCs were a ragged bunch of aircraft back then and there haven't been any new ones built since. The KC-10 was in the early testing stage along with the KC-747 which didn't make the cut because it created too much turbulence for safe refueling operations. The KC-135 is built on the Boeing 707 airframe and the 707 has not been used for commercial passenger service for 30+ years in the US. If the KCs are showing their age as bad as I am I wouldn't get on one intending to leave the ground!

    3. Pingback: PA Pundits - International

    4. Tom, Maryland says:

      As an Air Force veteran, this story is near and dear to my heart. There has to be some fundamental shifts in the development of the defense budget and the appropriations process for DOD.

      However, there is another story that is also relevant to this procurement that isn't being reported on and that is the "hold" Senator Shelby has placed on DOD appointees to ensure that the award of this contract goes to Northrop Grumman who has promised to build the manufacturing plant in Alabama if they win. He originally held up virtually all of the DOD appointees and the generals that were promoted but released those last week but continues to hold a handful of appointees hostage to his unscrupulous demands. While he claims that the hold is based on "demanding more transparency in the process", there is no one that believes this is anyting other than pressure to ensure the pork comes to Alabama. Virtually all of the appointees that are being held by the senator have nothing to do with this procurement.

      I find it absolutely detestable that we would be holding up the appointment of DOD leaders at a time of war for no reason other than one senator's attempt to get an unfair earmark directed to his state. If the Republican party leadership allows this to continue to happen, then we deserve to remain in the minority.

    5. Louis Levy Houston T says:

      Even if the Green money have to be taken, all these old equipment need to be renewed especially in wartime.

    6. Adam Marshall, Color says:

      Your point that the aging tankers will cost significantly more to maintain if used for several more decades is valid. However, your point about them using an exorbitant amount of fuel is incorrect. The current KC-135R platform (all E models are now retired) are actually remarkably fuel efficient and highly effective, burning right at 10K/lbs per hour and capable of a 200K/lbs fuel offload. All KC-135Rs have engines that were upgraded in the mid-80's to high performance turbo-fan models. The KC-X will be a larger aircraft and will actually burn significantly more over the same given duration of flight with nearly equivalent off-load capability.

    7. John, Colorado says:

      Perhaps it's not just corrupt politics. When something so critical as this issue is getting put off and ignored to the detriment of national security, the loyalty of those involved needs to be questioned. Would it not be interesting for Homeland Security to do a thorough analysis of all of Senator Shelby's senate and personal communications and financial records would reveal he is guilty of treason, and those of his staff.

      When Chinese spies can just have whatever they want in this country, one has to wonder if, and how badly, our counterintelligence agencies have been penetrated. First it was Clinton and his staff not getting proper security clearances, and not to forget, the Russian listening device in his State Department meeting room door trim.

      Now it's a president who can't produce a birth certificate and reportedly has a string of fake social security numbers associated with him. Who also himself could not pass a security clearance. What is his White House like?

      The Russians had a spy in nearly every cabinet department in the late 1940's. How many foreign spies are waltzing around the halls of Congress, in the political parties, in the media, in the military, and in the counterespionage agencies?

    8. Seth Arluck, New Ham says:

      I would like to note that the tanker issue has a huge impact on the efficacy of US Navy Carrier Battle Groups, i.e. this is not just an Air Force problem. The end of the longer -legged F-14's and A-6's combined with mothballing S-3's and KA-6's means greater demand for aerial refueling and a reduction in organic tanking resources for CVBG's. Furthermore, the only organic tanking must be done by using F/A-18's as tankers, thereby reducing availability for strike.

      Navy aviation could never have reached Afganistan without KC-135's and KC-10's. Mac, have you done a Boeing/Airbus analysis?

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.

    ×