The US Air Force Needs a New Tanker


Released on Friday, March 3, 2006
United States of America
KC-135 Stratotanker
The Air Force wants a new refueler aircraft, something commercially available now, which can be modified to replace the existing KC-135 Stratotanker fleet. That testimony came from Air Force leaders associated with the tanker replacement program, February 28 in front of the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on projection forces.

Lt. Gen. Donald Hoffman, the military deputy for Air Force acquisition, told congressional members that his first choice would be to replace the service's fleet of aging KC-135s with a new airplane.

The general said he has no opinion on who should manufacture the plane, only that the new aircraft be the same as each other in both size and design.

General Hoffman told congressional members his second choice for recapitalizing the tanker fleet would be to modernize the current KC-135 fleet, which involves converting existing KC-135E models to KC-135R models.

But one problem with modernizing aircraft already owned by the Air Force is the rate at which those planes can be converted. General Hoffman said the Air Force can afford to convert about 15 aircraft a year to the R model. At that rate, the Air Force would be modernizing those aircraft for some 40 years. At the end of that cycle, some of the aircraft coming out of the modernization process would be nearly 80 years old.

Another problem with modernizing KC-135E aircraft is that even with the work that goes into converting them to KC-135Rs, there are still structural problems not addressed and some capabilities lacking.

Various estimates of the lifespan of the KC-135 project the retire date out as late as 2040, but as the aircraft get older, the Air Force discovers more things wrong with the aircraft. That decreases the projected lifespan of the "Eisenhower-era" tankers, many of which were built in the late 1950s to early 1960s.

As the aircraft has no defensive capabilities, its limitations make it difficult to use in the desert, General Kelly said. Additionally, the Air Force would like to use its tanker fleet for work other than refueling, such as moving passengers and cargo. The Air Force would also like to offer both boom and drogue refueling capability with its primary tanker fleet, something the KC-135 can not now do.

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