Rethink the Tanker

We believe it is time to rethink the way ahead on replacing the aging United States Air Force fleet of tanker aircraft. To date, most of the effort, and rhetoric, has focused on two competitors and a replacement for the already too old KC-135 air refueling tanker. Engulfed in legal and political controversy, this process has continued for the better part of twenty years. Much of the discussion to date has focused on a “winner take all” or a “split buy” solution which simply splits the KC-135 acquisition process between the two existing competitors. We suggest an entirely different path should be taken.

Because the acquisition timeline to replace the KC-135 has consumed so many years, the Air Force is now in a position of not only needing to replace the 50-year old KC-135 but also the aging KC-10 as well. It is time to do what’s right for the USAF and begin replacing the aging tanker fleet this year by putting the DOD acquisition back on track and buying the best capability we can.

For many decades, the KC-135 and KC-10 tankers have been the workhorses and the key elements in our ability to protect the nation during conflict. Without them, our air force cannot sustain our forces in battle or humanitarian relief efforts. Their complementary capabilities are such that if we had new versions of these two aircraft today, we would have an ideal mix of medium and large aircraft to meet wartime and contingency air refueling requirements while also offering the warfighters an additional option for augmenting the airlift fleet.

We believe the combined needs must be addressed at once. It can be accomplished by what we refer to as a “dual buy” that phases in not only a replacement for the KC-135 (dual purpose, able to support air refueling requirements from smaller dispersed airfields close to the fight) but also a replacement for the KC-10 (also dual purpose, longer range, larger cargo capacity). We must think strategically about the tanker requirement and pursue an acquisition path that asks industry to deliver not one aircraft, but rather a mix of needed capabilities to meet our country’s air refueling requirements.

The “dual buy” approach enables this to occur and can provide the means of ending the stalemate that politics and legal maneuvering have imposed. We emphasize that this option is not meant to appeal to both of the current offerors but to create a competition which results in a fleet of highly capable tanker aircraft that will meet the stringent requirements of the war fighter across the full spectrum of crises.

First and foremost, the aircraft that are bought need to fit the requirements of the tanker mission. If an aircraft — large or small — cannot perform within our established tanker profile, it shouldn’t be bought. That profile has been established by the warfighters through decades of lessons learned. We cannot discard the lessons we’ve learned to accommodate any political pressures.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed emphatically his frustrations with the defense procurement system. We share his frustration: we believe the system should be sufficiently flexible to enable a fair competition but still deliver what the warfighters need when they need it.

At his April press conference, Gates indicated that he was open to an accelerated purchase of tanker aircraft. We agree, and believe that the increased short-term funding should be made available to ensure the delivery of tankers as quickly as possible, phased to meet the Air Force’s most urgent needs.

Their most important need must be defined by the warfighters, not the politicians or the lawyers. The missions our successors are flying today need to be supported most urgently. An accelerated acquisition can accomplish this, especially if it’s part of a dual-buy strategy. Our tanker fleet needs can best be met by replacing the older KC-135s and at the same time phasing in replacement of the KC-10s.

While we clearly understand the argument that “we cannot afford such an acquisition strategy,” if our experience teaches anything, it is that, in the long run, millions — perhaps billions — can be saved by such an accelerated dual-buy strategy. Buying a large number of aircraft at once always reduces the per-aircraft price. And a fair competition — with the uncompromised needs of the warfighter as its foundation — can ensure that whatever missions our military is assigned can be achieved.

The twenty-year process we’ve endured to replace the too-old tankers has already imposed limitations on our military’s abilities. If it is allowed to stumble along, those limitations will begin to affect our ability to achieve our missions. It’s time to end the logjam and get new tankers into the sky.

Retired Lieutenant General John Baker (USAF), retired Major General Mark Volcheff, (USAF) and Dr. Linda Brent contributed significantly to this report. Gen. Baker retired from the Air Force after a distinguished 33 year career, culminating in his service as the Vice Commander, Air Mobility Command (AMC), Scott Air Force Base, which is responsible for the bulk of the U.S. Air Force’s strategic transportation assets and mission. Gen. Volcheff currently serves as Assistant for Federal Matters in the Office of the Colorado Homeland Security and is responsible for bringing the Federal capabilities and perspective to Colorado’s Homeland Security strategy and planning. Dr. Brent has 25 years experience in both the defense industry and other government agencies and recently served as Senior Vice President at TYBRIN Corporation and previously as Corporate Director of Homeland Security with L-3 Communications.