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Recapitalization of Refuelers, Transport Ships Critical to Transcom Mission

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Feb. 03, 2022) -- Much of the U.S. military's fleet of refueling aircraft is old -- the newest KC-135 Stratotanker, for instance, was built in 1965. And sealift ships available to the U.S. military are also nearing the time when they'll be expected to retire.

"When I look at the capabilities that Transcom has, [when] I look at the sealift, our ships are 46 years old," said Air Force Gen. Jacqueline VanOvost, the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, during a discussion today with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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The reserve fleet, she said, even includes steam ships.

"You can't even find engineers that work on steam ships," she said. "We have to keep 60-, 70-year-old engineers around to keep running them. We must recapitalize that."

Refueler aircraft and sealift ships are important components of the U.S. Transportation Command's mission, and both must be recapitalized sooner rather than later if Transcom is going to continue to be as effective as it is.

Van Ovost said one way to get newer ships into the sealift fleet, at least in the short term is through the purchase of used vessels. It's something the Navy is working on now.

"In our discussions with the Navy, there is a strategy out there to begin to purchase used ships, which essentially was our strategy almost 30 years ago," she said. "It's to purchase some used ships and get them into the fleet because our fleet is old."

Right now, she said, 37 of the 50 large "roll-on, roll-off" ships available to Transcom for moving large military equipment are expected to retire in the next decade.

"We've got to begin a stabilized program of recapitalization," she said. "We're working with the Navy on this strategy to purchase used in the beginning, and we're working with Congress and we've been authorized to purchase up to nine used ships in combination with some new ships."

Equally important is new growth in U.S. ship-building capacity, she said.

"We've got to revitalize our shipbuilding capability and our ability at the docks to do repairs and maintenance and modifications," she said. "That is critical for our defense industrial base -- not just for sealift, but frankly for all of our sea power."

When it comes to aircraft that provide refueling capability -- an important mission for Transcom -- the KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-10 Extender have been workhorses for decades.

The KC-135 was first built in 1955, while the KC-10 entered service in 1980. Both aircraft are well worn from their time in service.

"We look at the KC-10, in particular; it's very expensive to keep that airframe going," she said. "It's going to cost a lot of money to keep it going. We need to replace it, and frankly, we need to also start replacing the KC-135, as well."

The KC-46 Pegasus, now in limited service in the Air Force, is a suitable replacement aircraft, Van Ovost said, and is capable of doing more than just the tanker mission.

"It can do aeromedical evacuation. It can do cargo. It can do probe-and-drogue and boom refueling, and it's connected to the net. It's ... Link-16; it's our ability to see the battlespace, transmit as a node in the network, which makes everybody better," she said.

When it comes to recapitalization of the capabilities used by Transcom, Van Ovost now is the time.

"It is absolutely necessary that we recapitalize on a schedule that we're not finding ourselves throwing good money after bad," she said. "What I look at is what is the problem set, where are the gaps we're trying to get after, and how do we get the services to purchase the capabilities necessary to close those gaps as soon as possible."

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