The Tanker Imperative

Aug. 25, 2015

The KC-46 next generation tanker program is entering the often-problematic stage in a military aircraft’s development program. It must move beyond being a “paper airplane” and actually prove its capabilities in the air with real metal, electronics, and composites.

Early results have been mixed. A KC-46 test aircraft flew for the first time at the end of 2014, beating a deadline by days, but Boeing has also recently announced the program has gone $808 million over the company’s budget thus far.

This cost overrun is Boeing’s problem (not USAF’s or the taxpayers’) because the KC-46 program is a firm, fixed-price contract. In fact, Boeing is believed to have deliberately underbid the price to win the contract—on the expectation that KC-46 work would later lead to other sales for the company.

USAF is watching the progress very closely. The KC-46 is one of the service’s top three modernization priorities, along with the F-35 strike fighter and the Long-Range Strike Bomber. An often-overlooked flying gas station mission holds this high-priority status for good reason.

During the first three quarters of Fiscal 2015, USAF’s KC-135 and KC-10 tankers put in 220,000 flying hours, transported 15,000 passengers, and performed nearly 1,000 aeromedical evacuations. And none of that is even an aerial refueling tanker’s primary mission, which is to deliver fuel to the aircraft that need it.

USAF’s tankers have been intensely involved in Operation Inherent Resolve, the air war against ISIS insurgents in Syria and Iraq. In that conflict alone, Air Force tankers flew 14,000 sorties and performed 90,000 aircraft refuelings during the operation’s first year.

In July, to meet the continuous need for gas in this air war, the Air Force stood up a second expeditionary air refueling squadron at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, from which the tankers can refuel aircraft based throughout the Middle East.

The fight against ISIS is but one of the global missions USAF’s tankers make possible, and this is the new normal. The “entire US military is very busy,” said Gen. Darren W. McDew in an interview, adding, “I don’t see that changing any time soon.” In mid-August, McDew was head of Air Mobility Command but had been confirmed for reassignment as commander of US Transportation Command.

Indeed, thoughts that the Air Force would catch a breather after ending operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have fallen by the wayside. There has been a steady need for Air Force airpower in the Middle East; the demands in Africa are slowly increasing; threats and missions in Europe have ramped up; the vast distances in the Pacific make aerial refueling an automatic; and there are always CONUS-based missions and exercises to support. “There is not an operation anywhere we don’t touch,” McDew noted.

The airmen operating and supporting today’s KC-135s and KC-10s are performing their missions with aircraft that are typically older than they are.

The KC-135 is a case study in managing aging aircraft. The 396 Strato­tankers are continuously upgraded, such as through a Block 45 avionics upgrade that should reach initial operational capability early next year.

These tankers are run through depot every five years for a comprehensive refresh, but the KC-135’s first flight was in 1956, and they take a lot of work. USAF invests $700 million a year in their depot work, which typically covers 31,000 man-hours of labor over 126 days. When the aircraft return to their units, they may have a patchwork of new and old components, but they remain safe and reliable.

Even the KC-10s are now 31 years old. They too are continuously refurbished and upgraded, and an Extender avionics upgrade was due to reach initial operational capability last month.

The question is: How long can USAF keep this up? The KC-46 program will deliver 179 aircraft by 2027. This will only recapitalize a third of the tanker fleet, an inventory based on real-world operational requirements—including the need to support US Strategic Command’s nuclear combat mission.

When the KC-46 program wraps up, hundreds of remaining KC-135s will be 65 years old, and the combat needs will continue. One of the KC-46’s key performance parameters is survivability—it will have defensive systems and be suitable for nighttime operations.

Defensive systems are a reflection of how tankers are used today. Radar warning receivers and Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) systems allow tankers to deploy and set up refueling tracks closer to combat zones, in turn giving fighters and bombers more gas for combat operations.

One hundred-forty Guard and Reserve KC-135s will receive LAIRCM upgrades, and USAF is also buying 35 LAIRCM pods that can be moved from one aircraft to another within 30 minutes. These systems protect large, slow aircraft from infrared missiles, and installations will begin in 2017.

That year is a big one for the KC-46 as well.

Boeing should have delivered 18 Pegasus aircraft to the Air Force by 2017. There is quite a lot riding on this schedule, as military construction programs, beddown plans, personnel assignments, and KC-135 retirements are all being planned with this specific KC-46 delivery schedule in mind. Top Air Force leaders are hopeful Boeing will meet the schedule but are certainly not taking it for granted. McDew said he is “a bit concerned” about where Boeing is on the timeline, but noted that a schedule slip would realistically be more along the lines of months than years.

Boeing made its 2014 deadline for a KC-46 first flight with three days to spare. The first flight of an all-up test vehicle has now slipped from the spring to October.

There will always be unforeseen missions springing up all across the globe. That is what makes the KC-46 so critical: Today’s aerial refueling fleet will not last forever, old airplanes often find new ways to break, and global threats are proliferating. The new tanker must get into the force on time.