America Must Stay the Course on Its Air Tanker Acquisition Strategy

Boeing's KC-46 is the world’s best tanker, and launching a competition for a new tanker would be unnecessarily expensive.

Over a decade ago, the Department of Defense (DoD) began replacing its aging fleet of tankers that had been in service since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

While fighter jets and bombers seem to grab the headlines and the interests of youngsters building models, the truth is that without a tanker to perform mid-air refueling of aircraft, the reach of both the bombers and the fighter jets are cut dramatically. Simply put, air tankers allow America’s warfighters to stay in the air and on target longer and without making extra trips back to the home base to refuel.

The US Air Force now has 47 new, high-tech tankers and more are on the way as military planners believe we will need around 480 in total to meet America’s current defensive needs.

These tankers, known as the KC-46, are more fuel-efficient and more capable of distributing and delivering fuel to every single aircraft in our arsenal than any other tanker on the planet. That means they are better for the American taxpayer, the environment, and the warfighter.

Someday, far into the future, America will need to replace what after many decades will be an aging fleet of KC-46s, but for now it is the world’s most capable and robust air tanker.

Despite that fact, some are now surprisingly calling for a redesign or to end the program in favor of a foreign-built tanker, such as the EADS/Airbus plane. Doing this will simply raise costs for little in return.

This is especially true because as the KC-46 rolls off the assembly line, as is easy to include new technology upgrades along the way as they become available and needed. To launch a brand-new competition for a new tanker in the near future would be unnecessarily expensive. If the DoD decided to go in a different direction, it would also increase their costs, require new training, new spare parts, and new maintenance protocols.

In short, spending time and money to develop a new, unproven tanker, provides virtually no benefit, but is sure to cost the taxpayer billions.

Potential Problems With Foreign-Built Tanker

If the DoD goes with a tanker from another manufacturer, such as the EADS/Airbus plane, they would also have to upgrade hangers and runways in NATO nations and the Pacific Rim — another significant money sinkhole.

Furthermore, none of this even asks the question as to whether it makes sense for the United States to purchase military hardware from a company that is owned by a number of nations — some of whom are allies and some of whom are adversaries, such as Russia.

But even if American policymakers can get past the idea of making their own warfighters dependent upon a company owned in part by Russia, there is the problem that even its allies are not always supportive. For example, when President Ronald Reagan asked for France’s permission to fly US aircraft through its airspace to carry out a mission against a state sponsor of terrorism — Libya — France said no.

As a result, America lost two pilots whose planes suffered a failure due to the long and circuitous route they had to fly around France to reach their targets.

Moreover, Israel has found that buying things from EADS/Airbus can be risky. The company has withheld spare parts required for maintenance because European governments have disagreed with Israel’s military policy.

It doesn’t sound like a good idea to make America’s ability to keep its tankers in the air subject to the approval of a bunch of European parliamentarians who have frequently proven that they will intervene in industrial markets to achieve foreign policy goals.

The Japan-bound tanker recently refueled another KC-46A in the skies over Washington state.
A Japan-bound KC-46 refuels another KC-46 in the skies over Washington state. Photo: Kevin Flynn/Boeing

Committing to the KC-46

But even beyond the question of buying military hardware from an unreliable partner, the fact is America already has a cutting-edge tanker that is vetted, tested, and being flown today.

By committing to the KC-46 for the long run, the DoD would save billions in research and development; would be guaranteed to meet all rollout schedules; and would save money across the board in streamlining parts, maintenance, training, and construction of airbases.

The United States has a proven winner, so the DoD should commit to the KC-46 for the full 479 tankers that it believes it needs. As with all military procurements, improvements and upgrades can be added to the program over time.

In another 40, 50, or more years, America may need to start replacing KC-46. But for the next several decades there is no reason to waste money on an expensive competition when the DoD already has the world’s best tanker as it is.

Headshot George LandrithGeorge Landrith is President of Frontiers of Freedom, a think tank founded by former US Senator Malcolm Wallop to promote the principles of peace through strength.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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