Air Force Wants to Cut 32 Tankers to Free Up Space and Personnel for KC-46s

The Air Force is again targeting its old tankers for retirement, proposing a cut of 18 KC-135s and 14 KC-10s in fiscal 2022, after the service presented a new “roadmap” for its tanker fleet to gain the approval of U.S. Transportation Command. Along with the proposed cuts, the Air Force wants to buy 14 more KC-46s.

Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia III, the Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget, said the tanker cuts will be front loaded, rather than a one-for-one swap with new KC-46s, to ensure the new Pegasus aircraft and aircrews can be ready.

“Part of it is to clear the way for ramp space for the KC-46s to come in; part of it is to use the manpower that is already in the KC-135 and KC-10 programs and transfer that over so we can get them trained and ready to go,” he said. “So part of it really is to clear the way, or to give us some space, for the KC-46s to come in.”

Last year, U.S. Transportation Command boss Gen. Stephen R. Lyons pushed back on proposed cuts to the legacy tanker fleet, warning that aerial refueling already was the most stressed part of his command. Congress agreed and largely blocked USAF’s efforts to divest legacy tankers.

This year, the Air Force was able to present a clearer roadmap on how it plans to bring on the KC-46, coinciding with increased confidence of aircrews operating the plane, Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost told Air Force Magazine in a May 26 interview. Air Combat Command leaders have flown on the KC-46 and watched it refueling first-hand and have agreed to let the tanker refuel fourth-generation fighters more. Additionally, AMC plans to offer the KC-46 for limited operations in the coming months.

AMC conducted an analysis and presented the “roadmap” to TRANSCOM on the planned retirements. This included retiring KC-135s as it brought on new KC-46s, allowing for the advanced work to prepare for more Pegasus tails to arrive.

“All that together … demonstrated how this is going to work,” Van Ovost said.

Lyons, in testimony to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee last month, said the Air Force’s steps, along with increased operations by Air National Guard and Reserve tanker crews, make him feel more comfortable sending some KC-135s to the boneyard.

“I really appreciate the support of the Air Force,” Lyons said. “I’ve talked to the Chief about this. I think we’re in a very good place. I do think it’s the right decision to allow the Air Force to retire the KC-135s that they requested to retire,” Lyons told appropriators.