U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) is asking lawmakers to buy back the majority of aging aerial refuelers that had been tagged for rapid retirement in the fiscal year 2021 budget request, warning that losing the platforms would result in a “capacity bathtub” until the KC-46A Pegasus is fully operational.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Feb. 25, TRANSCOM Commander Army. Gen. Stephen Lyons said air refueling is “the most stressed force element” in his portfolio, and he requested that lawmakers help the command keep tankers identified for retirement in the request, amid ongoing technical difficulties that have impeded the Air Force from fully taking advantage of the new Boeing [BA]-made KC-46.
“As we bring the KC-46 on, and we take on more jets and we convert more crews, when that capability is not usable … for some technical deficiencies, that means a dip in operational capability for the joint force in day to day operations,” Lyons said, noting that his command is “working very closely” with the Air Force and the Defense Department “to retain a level of legacy capability” during the conversion period.
TRANSCOM requested $110 million to buy back 23 of the 29 aging tankers that were included in the FY ’21 budget request, according to documents obtained by Defense Daily. The additional funds would salvage 10 out of 16 KC-10s the Air Force identified for retirement, and all 13 of the KC-135s identified in the FY ’21 budget request (Defense Daily, Feb. 10). The FY ’21 budget request would add 15 new KC-46A aircraft to the fleet.
Retiring the tankers in FY ’21 “creates a capacity bathtub with significant impacts to combatant command wartime and daily competition missions and negatively impacts senior leader decision space for mobilization if confronted with a crisis,” Lyons wrote in the unfunded requirements request.
“USTRANSCOM seeks to reverse this outcome for FY ’21 and buy back the [aircraft],” he continued. “For FY ’22 and beyond, any further [aerial refueler] aircraft reductions would be on a ‘year-by-year review’ based on KC-46 progress.”
The KC-46 tanker has been plagued by years of cost overruns and schedule delays, along with ongoing technical deficiencies. Deliveries began in January 2019, but the Air Force has stated that the aircraft will not see combat until a Category-1 deficiency involving the Remote Vision System that allows airmen to observe refueling operations is resolved. The KC-46 began initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) in October 2019 (Defense Daily, Oct. 23, 2019).
Multiple SASC members pressed Lyons for details on how his command would deal with the potential capacity bathtub, particularly those lawmakers who had tanker units based in their home states.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), noted that her parochially located Pease Air National Guard Base said goodbye to its final KC-135 aircraft last year “because we thought the KC-46 would arrive this year.” Her Republican colleagues Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (Okla.) also expressed concern over the potential break in capability.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), ranking member of the SASC Airland Subcommittee, requested more details of how TRANSCOM planned to solve the issue.
“I want to know, what’s the plan?” King asked Lyons, adding, “For the record, I’d like to see an action plan, not a reevaluation.”
Lyons replied that a joint plan with the Air Force would be forthcoming.
“It’s a very complex program for the Air Force to work, and they’re pushing as hard as they can with Boeing,” he added.