Picture this: Two U.S. Air Force aerial refueling tankers explode while in the midst of in-flight refueling and crash near Honolulu, Hawaii.
According to witnesses from the ground, the two aircraft -- a KC-135 and KC-10 -- drew the attention of onlookers when, on a local training mission, one of the planes suddenly shuddered, a flash was seen, and it appeared that the KC-135 exploded in mid-air. The ground observers stated that the KC-10, which was immediately aft of the KC-135, immediately became uncontrollable, wavered for a few seconds and then crashed into the ocean.
Initial analysis indicated that all personnel on both planes were killed. Air Force officials immediately assembled an accident investigation team and as a precautionary measure, grounded the entire KC-135 and KC-10 tanker fleet. For the next 24 hours or more, no U.S. Air Force tankers would fly anywhere in the world.
Although this is an imaginary scenario, it could happen.
Aircraft age and a history of wing corrosion issues, fuel tank explosions, and antiquated internal avionics systems all point to the real possibility that exists for a massive grounding of the refueling fleet.
Clearly the tanker fleet is an essential enabler for getting to the fight and fighting the fight. As one can imagine, the grounding of either tanker models would have a serious negative impact on our ability to prosecute air and ground operations everywhere we have military forces.
The consequences of having no air refueling capability would severely hinder our operations around the world. These capabilities include deployment support air refueling, air bridge air refueling, global attack air refueling, theater support air refueling (both combat air forces and mobility air forces), aero-medical evacuation, nuclear missions support, presidential airlift support, homeland defense support, joint missions and special operations air refueling.
In daily operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, our tanker sorties (more than 50 a day) directly support operations on the ground.
The nation needs a new aerial refueling tanker now. With tankers that are approaching 50 years old, we simply cannot afford to delay procurement any longer. Without a viable tanker fleet, the U.S. military would not have global reach capability. This force extension capability allows U.S. fighters, bombers, transports and reconnaissance aircraft to fly farther and longer, and reach destinations and targets that otherwise would be unreachable. Without the tankers, much of our current and future military operations would come to a halt and our nuclear deterrence capability would be in jeopardy.
A thorough analysis was conducted to state the importance of maintaining a viable, national air refueling capability required to ensure global mobility and rapid power projection. A 2006 RAND Corp. study, the Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) for KC-135 Recapitalization, proposed that medium to large commercial derivative jets provide the most cost-effective replacement tankers. The study acknowledged that the Air Force could keep the KC-135 flying beyond its intended lifespan by continuing to invest large amounts of capital and resources. To do so, however, would cost the Air Force more and more every year, and yet result in decreased capability in return.
The Air Force’s 2005 Tanker Requirement Study called for an air refueling fleet of at least 500 aircraft. Independent analyses conclude that purchasing new, commercial off-the-shelf aircraft to recapitalize the U.S. tanker fleet is the least expensive option to replace the KC-135 fleet from a life-cycle cost viewpoint.
The KC-X is the answer to these requirements.
The KC-X’s multi-role tanker air refueling capability; defensive systems; ability to be air refueled; and robust cargo, passenger and medical evacuation capability provide enhanced air mobility operations -- from training to contingencies to nuclear operations.
In addition to conducting traditional air refueling missions currently performed by such workhorses as the KC-135 and KC-10, the KC-X’s advanced capabilities will be called upon to perform other functions. These include night-vision imaging, multi-point refueling for simultaneous refueling of two or more aircraft (including boom and probe/drogue refueling), improved connectivity to command and control agencies, and ability to receive fuel in-flight.
Adding to its core air refueling tasks, the “dual role” KC-X will provide cargo and passenger airlift capability. Passengers and cargo can be carried in a self-deployment role as well as in support of other airlift operations when air-refueling requirements allow. Airlift missions can be dual-tasked with air refueling missions. The unique combination of cargo payload, receiver capability, and defensive systems makes the KC-X an exceptionally capable weapon for rapidly delivering forces anywhere in the world.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, in a Sept. speech to the Air Force Association, said, “Try to think of a mission where a tanker is not needed … Now, take it a step further.
Answer the question: What if the KC-135 fleet was grounded during a crisis? That thought should make your heart stop, because our worldwide presence and operations would …. Stop. Without tankers we’re not global. Our nation, our collective security, cannot wait for the moment of crisis to wake up and realize the urgency of tanker recapitalization.”
Sixty years ago, the tanker became the Air Force’s number one acquisition priority. That day is here again as the procurement of a replacement aircraft to our KC-135s and KC-10s is again our top priority. The KC-X represents a new era in strategic air mobility capabilities and is at the leading edge of our future tanker capability. We must get it now -- for the future of our military and the security of our country.
Gen. Arthur J. Lichte is commander of Air Mobility Command, Scott Air Force Base, IL.
A copy Air Mobility Command’s latest White Paper, which explains the rationale for a new tanker and outlines its concept of operations can be downloaded here.