Let's Solve the Tanker Mess

Most of us in the Air Force mobility community were a bit surprised by the decision to buy the quite large Airbus-330 tanker instead of the smaller Boeing 767 tanker. But the real shock was in the unusually harsh language used by the Government Accountability Office in overturning that decision. It was the harshest language used to overturn an action by the Air Force that I have read in my entire career.

In that career — spanning 39 years in the Air Force — I was fortunate enough to have been the Commander of the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and the USAF Air Mobility Command (AMC) from November 2001 until retiring from the Air Force in October 2005.

I devoted many years to the operation of air refueling tankers in support of the hundreds of other aircraft and tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and Coast Guardsmen who depend on them to create the “air bridge” that enables American forces and relief supplies to reach any corner of the world in only a few hours. Without the tankers performing when and where needed, America would not — quite literally — be a “superpower.”

In the many challenges we faced in those years, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in TRANSCOM pulled together as a joint team to get the job done on a daily basis throughout the entire time I was blessed to be their commander. We engaged in multiple crises around the world — humanitarian disasters as well as significant military conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most serious limitation we had was our equipment: the shortage of adequate mobility assets — meaning airlift and air refueling aircraft. First among those problems was then, and is now, the tankers.

I spoke about the air refueling tanker age and shortages on a routine basis with anyone who would listen. And I did so in the context of the other requirement those badly needed assets would support which includes virtually everything the armed services have to move from one place to another that can be loaded onto an airplane.

The shocking language of the GAO decision compels me to do something I’ve never done before: to speak out publicly. I am not employed by either Boeing or Northrop-Grumman. But the service I’ve devoted most of my life to appears to need a bit of help.

Somewhere in the acquisition process, it is obvious to me that someone lost sight of the requirement. Based on what the GAO decided, it’s up to people such as myself to remind everyone of the warfighter requirement for a modern air refueling tanker aircraft.

Recall that we started this acquisition process in order to replace the Eisenhower era KC-135 aircraft with a modern version capable of accomplishing everything the current fleet does plus additional needs for the future. Thus the required aircraft is of small to medium size much like the KC-135. Not a very large aircraft like the current KC-10, which may be replaced later with a comparably large aircraft.

Why a smaller to medium size aircraft? Because, first of all, you want tankers to deploy in sufficient numbers in order to accomplish all assigned tasks. You need to bed them down on the maximum number of airfields around the world along with or close to the customer — airborne fighters, bombers and other mobility assets in need of fuel close to or right over the fight or crisis. This allows the supported combatant commander the ability to conduct effective operations around the clock. The impact of more tankers is more refueling booms in the sky, more refueling orbits covered, wider geographic coverage, more aircraft refueled, and more fuel provided. A “KC-135 like” aircraft takes up far less ramp space, is far more maneuverable on the ground and does not have the risk of jet blast reorganizing your entire ramp when engine power is applied.

The second requirement is survivability. The aircraft and crew must be able to compete in a threat environment that contains enhanced surface to air missiles and other significant threats. The crew must receive superior situational awareness to include automatic route planning and re-routing and steering cues to avoid those threats. They must have maximum armor protection, fuel tank explosion protection and world class chemical/biological protection. All of this means the warfighter has the requirement for a large number of highly flexible and survivable air refueling aircraft.

I also want the acquired aircraft to be integrated with the current defense transportation system. That means 463L compatible pallets; floor loaded on a freighter capable floor all compatible with the current modern airlift fleet. When I put passenger seats in this aircraft, I want to be able to use existing airlift aircraft seats and pallets. When tasked with our precious aero medical mission, I want to be able to use integral medical crew seats, onboard oxygen generation systems, more outlets and be able to use the USAF patient support pallet. I do not want to harness the USAF with the problem of going out to acquire unique assets due to a more radically sized and equipped tanker aircraft.

Now, if you look at these rather simple requirements and look at the previous offerings from industry, you might agree with me that the KC-767 more closely meets these needs than the competition. If that’s what the warfighters need, that’s what they should get.

My purpose is only to help select the right aircraft that meets the warfighter’s requirements. It is not anything else. With that thought in mind, the KC-767 — or another that is the same size and has the same capabilities — is the right aircraft for the USAF. Now let’s see what the new leadership of the Air Force does to obtain the right aircraft for the warfighter.