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Advanced Tanker/Cargo Aircraft (ATCA)

In December 1964, after a production run of nine years, Boeing rolled out the 732d and last KC-135 tanker. By the time the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, that "newest" airplane was twenty-five years old; and the KC-135 produced in 1957 would be at least thirty-two years old. Meanwhile, buying a tanker to replace the aging KC-135s had become as politically convoluted as procuring a new bomber.

The Advanced Tanker-Cargo Aircraft (ATCA) was first proposed by Strategic Air Command in 1967. In 1968, SAC prepared a requirement for a tanker more capable than the KC-135. This became the Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft - ultimately the KC-10. Eight years passed. Considerable uncertainty existed over the number of advanced tankers required to fulfill future support missions. The Air Force wanted one hundred of them, but studies showed that sixty-seven might do. In 1976 the Air Force planned to buy 41 advanced tankers. In 1976, the procurement of two prototypes was approved. On December 30, 1976, the Office of the Secretary of Defense issued a Program Budget Decision directing procurement of 91 advanced tankers. In February 1977 a new program budget decision deferred the advanced tanker procurement one year, to allow the new administration time to assess the requirement. Reversing the decision of the outgoing Ford administration, the new Carter administration reduced that number to forty-one. At that point, no contractor had been selected. Subsequent reviews during the Air Force planning cycle identified the need for a small advanced tanker fleet, initially planned as 20 aircraft.

Under an Air Force contract, Douglas Aircraft Company was developing an Advanced Aerial Refueling Boom (AARB) for the Advanced Tanker/Cargo Aircraft System Program Office (ATCA SPO). The purpose of the AARB development program was to demonstrate that an advanced technology boom system, which would eliminate some of the limitations of the existing KC-135 boom, can be designed and successfully flown. By 1976, development of the AARB was mainly oriented toward performance -- meeting the design requirements. The ATCA SPO also desired to examine the costs of supporting the proposed design, if it is produced.

The prototype of the new boom completed joint development and initial operational test and evaluation in April 1978. The 184-hour flight test included 1,398 couplings with six different Air Force aircraft -- C-5A, F-4, NKC-135, A-10, TF-15, and B-52. The Air Force Test and Evaluation Center (AFTEC) conducted the initial operational test and evaluation, and the Air Force Flight Test Center conducted the development test and evaluation. Several other Air Force organizations as well as the contractor, McDonnell-Douglas, participated in the testing. AFTEC test report, dated June 1978, indicates that the new boom demonstrated an enhanced aerial refueling capability and is substantially easier to maintain than the KC-135 boom.

Procurement of the ATCA would enhance the responsiveness of our strategic military airlift force by making air refueling more readily available. This, in turn, would reduce our reliance on enroute bases and allow us the flexibility to skirt countries that might deny overflight rights. It will also allow an increase cargo loads in many cases.

The need for a long-range, large-capacity tanker to operate from the United States with reduced reliance on foreign bases for refueling was recognized in a formal Air Force requirement document in April 1976. Although SAC will operate the new tanker, the Air Force did not intend that the ATCA be committed to support only the strategic bomber force. If a crisis arose after the ATCA fleet was in operation, it was likely to be used in whatever mission the Joint Chiefs of Staff deemed appropriate.

In defining the formal requirement for the advanced tanker, the Air Force made several studies and flight tests to identify and analyze the alternatives for an improved tanker. The alternatives ranged from modifying existing aircraft, such as the KC-135 tanker, to developing an all new aircraft. The Air Force concluded that converting a wide-bodied commercial aircraft to a tanker was the most feasible and cost-effective solution. The Air Force also concluded that modifying the KC-135 to fulfill the long-range mission requirements was impractical due to cost and technical risks and that development costs alone for an all new tanker would exceed $1 billion.

Because of the limited range of the KC-135 and that fleet's commitment to the strategic bomber force, airlift aircraft may have to rely on foreign bases as "stepping stones" to reach many parts of the world. If U.S. aircraft were denied the use of those bases for either ground or aerial refueling operations, the effectiveness of strategic mobility could be reduced or eliminated.

An early priority in mobilization to Europe is the deployment of tactical fighter squadrons and their equipment. The large fuel capacity of the ATCA combined with its cargo capability could speed the deployment of fighter squadrons. For example, the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation estimated, and the Air Force verified, that 10 KC-1OAs could deploy 144 tactical fighters from the United States to Europe in 72 hours.

Originally four aircraft were considered as advanced tanker candidates: candidates: McDonnell-Douglas Corporation's DC-10, Boeing Company's 747, and Lockheed Corporation's L-1011 and C-5A. The L-1011 was not competitive because there was no freighter model and the C-SA was eliminated because it was not in production. The DC-10 and Boeing 747 became the two prime candidates because they were in production and provided the capacity to carry large quantities of fuel and/or cargo over long distances.

For the Air Force, the choice boiled down to tanker versions of either the Boeing 747 or the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10. Airplanes are like potatoes and nails: you buy them by the pound. The 747-300 had a tare weight of about 395,000 pounds; a DC-10-30's tare weight was only about 265,000 pounds, 32 percent less. A DC-10 variant clearly had to be less expensive than a 747, and more could be bought for the same money.

Not surprisingly, on December 19, 1977, the service announced that McDonnell-Douglas had won the contract. The KC-10A first flew on July 12, 1980, and the first was delivered to the Air Force in March 1981 - twelve years after SAC formulated its requirement for a new tanker. The Air Force awarded a contract to McDonnell-Douglas providing for delivery of up to 60 aircraft with varying prices and delivery schedules. Ultimately, sixty KC-10s were procured.



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