Will Ongoing KC-46 Tanker Problems Affect KC-10 Retirement?

A U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels near Mosul, Iraq, on Nov. 20, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. R. Alex Durbin)
A U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels near Mosul, Iraq, on Nov. 20, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. R. Alex Durbin)

There is no war without tankers.

It's an often-repeated phrase from U.S. Air Force officials such as Air Mobility Command commander Gen. Carlton Everhart II who say air refueling aircraft and mobility airmen are key to supporting troops in any war or peacetime mission.

But the service finds itself struggling to outline what's next for its tanker fleet as the KC-46 Pegasus -- the newest refueling tanker from Boeing Co. -- hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, questions surround the service’s aging KC-10 Extender and whether it will have to remain in service longer due to delays.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson this week chastised Boeing's latest Pegasus setback during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, saying the service knows deadlines won't be met even as the nation’s largest aerospace and defense company still hopes to meet them.

"One of our frustrations with Boeing is that they are much more focused on their commercial activity than they are in getting this right for the Air Force and getting these airplanes to the Air Force," Wilson told lawmakers Tuesday.

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"Boeing is saying that they are going to deliver in the second quarter of 2018. The Air Force thinks it is more likely to be late 2018. And Boeing has been overly optimistic in all of their schedule reports," she said.

Wilson acknowledged recent reports that the KC-46 is experiencing other problems with ongoing testing.

There "are two critical deficiencies, one being the Remote Vision System and the second being a drogue disconnect," Wilson said. The RVS, which gives the in-flight refueling operator the ability to view the refueling system below the tanker, is experiencing software glitches. And the drogue hose used in refueling keeps unexpectedly and prematurely disconnecting from receiving aircraft.

The KC-46 is meant to replace older tanker fleets. But without a solid timeline for when the KC-46 issues will be fixed or when the first aircraft may be delivered, it won't even begin to hit Air Force flight lines in significant numbers until at least 2019.

The delays shouldn't be a big deal, according to a defense expert. But service officials wonder whether the timeline outcome of KC-46 will play into when older tanker fleets begin to retire.

"Since tanker force planning assumes 50-plus-year life spans, delays of one to two years aren't a big deal," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president and analyst at the Teal Group.

William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, on March 14 said he believes the opposite: The later the KC-46 fleet comes online, the longer legacy tanker fleets must keep flying.

"You're right to point out that the delivery of the tankers alone impacts a lot of other things. It impacts training," he said in response to questions from Rep. Donald W. Norcross, D-N.J., during a House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces.

"It also impacts how long we have to keep the KC-10 and the KC-135s flying," Roper said.

The Pegasus is expected to replace some current tanker fleets at bases such as Travis Air Force Base, California, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. Norcross has worked a bipartisan effort for years to get the KC-46 to the New Jersey base.

During the hearing, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, said, "Had the KC-46A been delivering on time, we would have retired KC-10s just in time to receive the KC-46s at that base from the selection that's been made."

But according to officials at Air Mobility Command, which is responsible for the refueling fleet, the two circumstances don’t impact each other.

"Based on the updated and projected KC-46 delivery schedule, it is not anticipated that the KC-10 retirement will be delayed as the bulk of the retirements will occur in the 2020s," said Col. Chris Karns, AMC spokesman.

Karns said the total current inventory of KC-10 Extenders and KC-135 Stratotankers sits at 455 aircraft.

The Air Force's goal is to get to 479 with a mix of KC-46s and KC-135s. All three tankers are made by Boeing.

"The KC-10 retirement will occur on a phased process," Karns said in a recent email to Military.com. "This will happen once there are 479 aircraft. It is expected that once the KC-46 is delivered, the numbers of subsequent aircraft delivered will occur rapidly. That is why the KC-10 retirement dates are not expected to be impacted."

He continued, "The tanker fleet will be a mix of KC-46 and KC-135 aircraft. Initially, there will be a residual KC-10 capability. The important point to note is that the KC-10s will be retired gradually to ensure that the transition and support to the joint warfighter is near seamless and meets combatant commander needs."

The Air Force determined through a Mobility Capability Assessment study that 479 tankers should be sufficient for operations across the world; however, Karns said there is an additional ongoing study to determine if more than 479 are needed.

"KC-10s will be retired from Travis Air Force Base and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst," he said.

While timelines may shift, Karns noted the decision is based on budgets, and flying hour and maintenance costs associated with each aircraft.

It costs roughly the same to fly the KC-10 and the KC-135: $19,612 per flight hour for the KC-10, and $21,161 per hour for the KC-135, according to the Air Force's 2016 operational cost data sheet.

KC-10s are much younger. The modified versions of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 air tankers deployed for the first time in 1981. The KC-135s date back to the 1950s.

The KC-135, however, reigns supreme by sheer numbers: There are 396 Stratotanker R/T variants across the total force, while the KC-10A fleet numbers 59 in the active component only, according to AMC spokesman Maj. Korry Leverett.

Two KC-135s reside with Air Force Materiel Command for testing only, Leverett said.

"Retiring the KC-10 first makes little sense," Aboulafia said. The defense aerospace expert argued volume should not be the sole reason to overlook the KC-135's growing age.

"On the other hand, operational and sustainment costs are relatively higher for smaller fleets," he said, which may speak to the Air Force's thinking on its retirement.

"The critical mass of the very large KC-135 fleet makes the much smaller KC-10 fleet relatively less efficient, and therefore puts it in line to be retired first," he said.

Just how quickly the Air Force will get its intended mix of 300 KC-135s and 179 KC-46s remains to be seen and, as evident in recent hearings, Congress will be sure to press the Air Force for more information.

"The original date that we expected the delivery to start when this began. What year?" Norcross asked Roper during the March 14 hearing.

"Give me a year," the congressman said.

"We're years behind," Roper replied.

"Give me a decade?" Norcross said.

"I mean, it's one of the many programs where we've been delayed, sir. So, yes, it is years of time. And I'll get you the precise number for the record, sir," Roper said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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