The Air Force decision awarding its next-generation aerial tanker contract to a consortium led by EADS/Airbus is a disservice to our servicemen and taxpayers, and is intrinsically flawed.
Boeing’s long-serving KC-135 Stratotanker first entered service in 1957, over a half-century ago, and updated versions continue to fulfill its assigned missions effectively. When the KC-135 program was launched, it was a state-of-the-art airplane, incorporating the best of available aeronautical science.
Both candidates for new tankers are technological dinosaurs – Boeing’s 767-based entry flying for the first time in 1981, and Airbus’s A330 based contender being somewhat newer, flying in 1987, and having one significant technical advantage over the 767 – a fly-by-wire flight control system.
Given that military aircraft can serve for 50-plus years, buying aircraft in which the base technology is already more than 20 years old means that the Air Force will be purchasing dated technology airplanes, despite the upgrades being incorporated. That translates into not equipping our military with the best and most capable, elevated maintenance costs, and high (also read costly) fuel consumption (the less fuel the tanker itself requires, the more it can offload).
The sky isn’t falling. The current fleet of KC-135s can serve ably for at least another ten years, as long as necessary maintenance is performed. The newer, larger KC-10 Extender flew in 1980, and probably has a remaining life of 25 years. It features a modern fbw refueling boom. If more tanker capacity is urgently needed, the Air Foce can upgrade its 100-plus C-135Es to C-135R standard for maybe $6 billion, for a cost-effective, no-risk program. These might even be fitted with the fly-by-wire refueling boom now on the KC-767.
The Airbus risk: Four air forces have purchased or leased A330 MRTT tankers (not the French air force; it flies KC-135s) in the last several years, yet to date not one gallon of fuel has been offloaded during an operational mission, versus Boeing’s record of thousands refueling missions over a 50-year period. Several converted Airbus airliners, dubbed A310 MRTT, have operated using the probe/drogue (hose, reel) method, but not the boom method (Boeing invented) required by the Air Force. Airbus is busy reinventing the refueling boom.
Northrop/Grumman, the U.S. Airbus partner, has scant experience in aerial tankers. Grumman modified 62 two-seat A-6 attack aircraft into probe/drogue tankers in the 1960s for the U.S. Navy.
The plan is to assemble European-built A330 airframes in a yet-to-be-built plant in Alabama, using local labor that will have to be trained. Boeing is currently building and delivering KC-767 tanker/transports to Japan and Italy.
The solution: Cancel the Northrop/Grumman/EADS contract forthwith; redefine the new tanker requirements for a state-of-the-art airplane of the correct size – which would bring the Boeing 787 into the competition with a 30 to 50 percent increase in fuel offload capability over the KC-135R; and incorporate a fbw refueling boom.
The new-technology 787 should reduce fuel consumption and lessen maintenance requirements significantly. Since the major development costs have already been borne by Boeing, its partners and the airlines, the Air Force should reap quite a good deal. A KC-787 would have to be 95-plus percent U.S.-sourced, as some 300-plus aircraft would be needed, and a second source manufacturing and assembly line would be economically viable.
Anthony Pomata lives in Maple Valley and has worked in the aviation industry.