Fifty House members have signed a letter urging defense panel leaders to fund the purchase of 18 Boeing [BA] KC-46A tankers in fiscal year 2019, three more than the Air Force requested, to speed up the replacement of old refuelers.

“Our nation’s tanker fleet is the cornerstone of any operation that requires aerial assets,” the bipartisan letter says. “However, the current, aging fleet is in dire need of both new and additional assets.” 

A Boeing KC-46A tanker refuels an F-16. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)
A Boeing KC-46A tanker refuels an F-16. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

While the Air Force plans to buy a total of 179 KC-46As to replace its Reagan-era KC-10s and some of its Eisenhower-era KC-135s, “the advanced age of the KC-135s has begun to undermine the fleet’s readiness and availability,” the letter asserts.

The letter contends that the KC-46A offers several other advantages over the KC-135, including more modern refueling systems and the latest tools to detect and counter threats.

The letter also says that because Congress funded 18 KC-46As in FY 2018, buying the same number in FY 2019 would maintain “steady procurement.”

Reps. Ron Estes (R-Kan.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) spearheaded the letter and publicly released it May 1. Estes’ district includes McConnell Air Force Base, which is expected to receive 36 KC-46As. Larsen’s district includes Boeing’s tanker factory in Everett.

The letter is addressed to Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas) and Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense (HAC-D) panel.

The HASC is scheduled to consider its FY 2019 defense authorization bill on May 9. The HAC-D has not yet announced when it will take up the FY 2019 defense appropriations bill.

The Air Force awarded a contract to Boeing in 2011 to develop the KC-46A. The program has experienced several schedule slippages due to delays in completing flight tests and obtaining airworthiness certifications. The service now expects to receive the first jet late this year.