AMC Commander Discusses: KC-X, C-5 Programs
Gen. Arthur Lichte, the commander of USAF Air Mobility Command, recently placed the stakes behind the $30+ billion, 175 aircraft KC-X aerial refueling tanker contract in perspective, and discussed past aerial tanker program issues, as he addressed the Logistics Officer Association. He began by discussing the 707-based KC-135E fleet. Their tires must be rotated every 7 days, and every 45 days they must be towed and their engines run to keep them in a “flyable status” as directed by law. Will they fly? No.
“For example, we need to retire our KC-135 (Stratotanker) E models — their struts need repair. At the end of this year, we’ll have 85 of them parked on our ramps, and we don’t fly them. This type of maintenance of old aircraft is costing money. As a matter of fact, it costs about $100,000 per aircraft per year. We need some relief from this.”
He added that even if the first KC-X aircraft is delivered on time in 2011, and 15 a year are delivered after that, the last KC-135 will leave the fleet in 2048, at an age of about 87 years. However, if the program runs into any problems and slips by just 3 years, and Air Force officials are unable to procure 15 aircraft a year, the last KC-135 could retire in the year 2082, when it would be more than 120 years old. DID examines the calculations involved, then cover’s Lichte’s comments re: past upgrade efforts for the tanker fleet and the C-5/C-17 decision that is pending…
At present, the USAF has 530 KC-135s in inventory (Active duty 195; Air National Guard 251; Air Force Reserve 84), which means that by the General’s admission, no more than 445 KC-135s are currently flyable. The last KC-135 was delivered to the Air Force in 1965. They also operate another 59 of the larger KC-10 tankers, delivered from 1979-1987.
Assuming just 1 aerial tanker aircraft delivered in 2011, and 15 per year thereafter without a break, by 2048 the USA would have bought 556 aerial tankers. The general’s calculations thus assume better than 1:1 replacement; an unlikely goal, since the USAF has not replaced any of its major platforms on even a 1:1 basis for quite some time. If the last KC-135R withdrawn is also the last KC-135 to enter service, in 2048 it is 83 years old. Various reasons may make the last aircraft withdrawn a different aircraft, of course.
In order to reach 2082, however, one must not only move the 1st aircraft delivery back to 2014, but also cut production almost in half to 8 aircraft per year. With those stipulations, production would reach 545 aircraft in 2082.
Of course, if one assumes a future fleet of, say, 350 KC-135 replacements (2x the KC-X contract), and another 100 KC-10 replacements, the result is a set of contracts worth over $120 billion, and a production run that ends in 2035 or 2058, depending on which assumption set one chooses. Which, assuming that the last KC-135 withdrawn was also the last to enter service, still gives it an age of 70 – 93 years. Note that 93 years after the Wright Brothers’ first public demonstration of manned flight, was the year 2001.
While modernization programs for the KC-135s have been reasonably successful, the KC-10s that entered service from 1979-87 have been less successful. General Lichte used that as an example, adding that:
“Ten years ago we said ‘If we modernize the KC-10, that will be our bridge to the next KC-X (aerial tanker),'” he said. “(But) we attempted that, and we failed three times… $153 million dollars has gone into a black hole, and KC-10 hasn’t been modernized. We can’t do that anymore. We need to play hardball…”
“I think we’ve passed the window to (modernize C-5A aircraft), because they will be too old, and we won’t get much payback out of them… if we can’t modernize the C-5s, we have to get more C-17s. It’s our only alternative to meet our nation’s airlift needs.”