DAYTON, Ohio — The Air Force is readying its acquisition strategy to replace its two aging OC-135B observation aircraft in the next fiscal year, the deputy program executive officer for the tanker directorate said Wednesday. But the service’s recap plans could be in jeopardy as Congress works toward passing its fiscal year 2019 (FY19) appropriations conference report.

Should funding be provided, PEO Tanker could issue a request for proposals to replace the Boeing [BA]-built aircraft by early next calendar year, said Magdy Sorial during a panel presentation at the Air Force’s Life Cycle Management Center’s (AFLCMC) third annual Life Cycle Industry Days (LCID) conference here.

The Air Force operates the two aircraft under the Open Skies Treaty which since 2002, allows any of its 34-member countries to fly surveillance over each other’s territories without prior notice using aircraft with limited visual capabilities. The two modified WC-135 aircraft that carry out the mission for the U.S. military are over 50 years old, and have begun to break down during deployments, Sorial noted.

“Sometimes [the] parts take a long time to get there, and we miss our window to take imagery,” he said.  

Lawmakers have been at odds over to whether to fund the two new aircraft until Russia returns to compliance with the Open Skies Treaty. Republican Nebraska legislators including Sen. Deb Fischer and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry have expressed support for the recap program. OC-135B aircraft are currently stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

The House version of the FY ’19 defense appropriations bill, passed in late June, axes about $222 million included in the FY ’19 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the recap program. The bill also includes a requirement for the service to submit its acquisition strategy for the replacement platforms to Congress (Defense Daily, June 13).

The Senate version of the bill, passed Aug. 23, leaves the authorized funding in place. The chambers are currently undergoing negotiations in an effort to release a conference report for the bill by the end of next week, and ultimately pass the bill before Sept. 30.

While the fate of new aircraft remains in limbo, the Air Force is currently working to install new digital cameras on the aircraft as the current framing cameras are going out of production, Sorial said. That program, begun several years ago, is currently undergoing flight testing, he added. About $6 million is included in both FY ’19 appropriations bills for this and other upgrades to existing OC-135B aircraft.