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Air Force seeks new tanker

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 03, 2006) -- The Air Force wants a new refueler aircraft, something commercially available now, which can be modified to replace the existing KC-135 Stratotanker fleet.

That testimony came from Air Force leaders associated with the tanker replacement program, Feb. 28 in front of the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on projection forces.

When prompted by congressional members, Lt. Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, the military deputy for Air Force acquisition, provided a personal opinion that his first choice would be to replace the service's fleet of aging KC-135s with a new airplane.

"It should be a new aircraft, a commercial derivative, and I think we ought to buy one kind," he said. "The first 100 (should) all look the same."

The general said he has no opinion on who should manufacture the plane, only that the new aircraft be the same as each other in both size and design.

General Hoffman told congressional members his second choice for recapitalizing the tanker fleet would be to modernize the current KC-135 fleet, which involves converting existing KC-135E models to KC-135R models.

But one problem with modernizing KC-135E aircraft is that even with the work that goes into converting them to KC-135Rs, there are still structural problems not addressed and some capabilities lacking.

Various estimates of the lifespan of the KC-135 project the retire date out as late as 2040, but as the aircraft get older, the Air Force discovers more things wrong with the aircraft. That decreases the projected lifespan of the "Eisenhower-era" tankers, many of which were built in the late 1950s to early 1960s.

"These airplanes continue to get older, and as they get older we continue to find things on them, (so) their time of usefulness will move closer to us," said Lt. Gen. Christopher Kelly, Air Mobility Command vice commander. "These particular airplanes, although they provide us with a good deal of service, are not modern airplanes and they do not give us the capability we would want to have in modern airplanes."

As the aircraft has no defensive capabilities, its limitations make it difficult to use in the desert, General Kelly said. Additionally, the Air Force would like to use its tanker fleet for work other than refueling, such as moving passengers and cargo. The Air Force would also like to offer both boom and drogue refueling capability with its primary tanker fleet, something the KC-135 can not now do.

"We would like to address those issues in a new acquisition if we were allowed to do that," General Kelly said. "From an operational point of view, the increased capability you'd get from a modern airplane with floors, doors, defensive systems, the ability to refuel itself and the ability to provide a drogue refueling and a boom refueling to receivers, would be a better investment than just re-engining the E models."