The Air Refueling Shortfall: Closing the US Air Force Air Refueling Capability Gap.

Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas… and there will never be enough tankers.

The US cannot… repeat… cannot… go to war without air refueling tankers.

I don’t know how many times my KC-135 crew participated in an Air Force exercise where the planners said there will always be enough airborne gas. Maybe it was true in the Cold War days of the 1960s through 1980s.

Not any more. The USAF fleet has shrunk while aging. 

During my refueling planners first pass at the 2003 Iraqi Freedom opening night of Shock and Awe, the coalition air forces were 42 tanker sorties short… totaling slightly under five million pounds of gas. This was Tuesday night with the opening on Friday night 21 March. The Master Air Attack Plan cut critical strike and intelligence sorties simply because there wasn’t enough gas. The coalition flew the Opening Night Air Tasking Order O seventeen tanker sorties short because we knew there would be fighter and bomber no-shows for various reasons. And we were right.

The second limiting factor to Shock and Awe’s opening night was the lack of Boom and Drogue equipped air refuelable tankers which could be filled up without landing. The KC-10 was the only aircraft fitting this definition. The sixty-year-old KC-135 filled the rest of the US Air Force tasking for the Iraqi invasion. Imagine this: the Air Force refueling workhorse was flown by the Grandfathers of its current Pilots and Booms. The Air Forces needed a new tanker in 2003. 

Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus tanker was supposed to fix these shortfalls.

As the new US National Defense Strategy hits the streets, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson stated the US Air Force will expand from 312 squadrons to 386, close to Cold War levels. Expansion means more refueling support will be required. Secretary Wilson’s vision adds 14 new tanker squadrons. The 14 squadrons will fly KC-46 platforms more than likely. Problem is, Pegasus is three years late and $2 billion over budget. It doesn’t look like the spring deadline for Boeing to put a plane on the Altus Air Force Base ramp is going to happen.

Airbus’ A330 tanker is the alternative. 

Lockheed EVP Michele Evans and Airbus EVP Fernando Alonso exchange MOAs in an A330 cockpit

And Airbus A330 MRTT’s just keep on delivering. 

The A330 MRTT tanker has won the last two international competitions for refueling platforms because of Boeing’s poor KC-46 performance. Singapore, a former KC-135 flyer, and South Korea have purchased the Airbus A330. The French Air Force received its first A330 in October after flying KC-135s for 55 years! The RAAF brought one of their A330’s over to Edwards AFB and certified Air Force and Navy aircraft on their Boom and Drogues because of efforts in the Middle East. The Royal Australian Air Force A330’s are enjoying a great run in the fight against ISIS, filling up all but our stealthiest platforms.

A US Air Foce B-52 bomber is refueled by a Royal Australian Air Force A330 tanker

On December 6th, Europe’s Airbus, manufacturer of the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, and Lockheed Martin signed a memorandum of agreement to explore the US refueling shortfall issues. In her statement to the press, Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said “The companies will seek to provide aerial-refueling services to address any identified capacity shortfall and to meet requirements for the next generation of tankers capable of operating in the challenging environments of future battlespace.” This agreement adds additional pressure for Boeing to perform. The Airbus A330 won the original US Air Force contract until Boeing protested and won the second round. Now we wait. The Air Force is looking for additional options to fill the tanker shortfall. One solution is contract air refueling, commercial companies flying A330s or KC-46s to close the capability gap. Smaller airline derivatives like the A310 could also fill this role. Tyler Rogoway of The Drive wrote a terrific article here on the benefits of contract A/R. 

My take on this is its a good thing Airbus and Lockheed have partnered. Competition is always a good thing for the customer, driving costs down and innovation up. Boeing’s performance on the 767 tanker is terrible. The Japanese and Italian 767 programs were also late and over budget for several issues. The US Air Force continues to wait on a program plagued by technical issues. Airbus has a flying tanker and Lockheed showed a mock up of their stealth tanker design at an Air Force Association convention several years ago. They both know another USAF tanker bid is coming, why not prepare for it now?  

Contract air refueling support is already here. Omega has been flying contract refueling support for the US Navy and Marine Corps for years, and recently sent jets to Australia for an exercise. Other companies in Europe have looked at the contract refueling market and are considering jumping in. In one case I worked on, their airframe of choice was the A330. If the US Air Force can contract out adversary air support like ATAC and Draken for the fighter community’s training, why not air refueling support?

One last issue… can contract refueling support work over the battlefield? Issues of insurance, recruiting and training aircrews, and tactics and employment need a hard look. The insurance costs are the contract killer over the battlefield. Splitting the work between contract refueling tankers training in the States or creating and sustaining the air bridge delivering fighters, bombers and ISR aircraft to the battlefield is a great option. The Active Duty/Guard/Reserve tankers can accomplish the in-theater (read combat support) refueling sorties to fill the battlefield air tasking orders.

Boeing needs to figure out what is wrong with their KC-46 program and fix it. Their reputation in the air refueling world is on the line. The cost of running a KC-135 fleet is huge using 1950s technology in a 2018 world and the USAF and other air forces need a modern tanker. Airbus and Lockheed have a very viable alternative to Boeing’s plagued 767 program. Hopefully this new Airbus/Lockheed partnership will explore new ways to fill the air refueling shortfalls the US, NATO, and other allied partners face because…

Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas… nobody!

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.