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KC-X Tanker Replacement Program

On February 24, 2011, the Department of the Air Force announced the award of an engineering and manufacturing development contract for the KC-46A aerial refueler to Boeing Co. of Seattle, WA. Valued at more than $3.5 Bn, the program is to deliver the first 18 aircraft by 2017 with basing decisions for the aircraft to take place over the following couple of years.

The primary mission of the KC-X concept is the strategic tanker mission using a fuselage mounted "flying boom" and multi-point hose/drogue systems. As a strategic airlifter, the concept can deliver over-sized military equipment into bare bases while providing performance comparable to modern commercial airliners. The modular medium transport concept uses major structural and system components from the KC-X to reduce life cycle cost. The medium transport is designed to deliver over-sized military cargo into bare bases while providing flight performance comparable to commercial transports. The concept is fully airdrop capable and can operate from short, soft soil fields at reduced take-off weights.

Proponents of the KC-X contend that corrosion is impacting the ability of the Air Force to accurately predict the KC-135 service life to allow timely force decisions. If possible, Air Mobility Command will retain the KC-135 through at least a 56 year service life, and its replacement, the KC-X, should be ready to enter the inventory by FY2013. An ongoing study which is critical to future KC-135/KC-X decisions is the Tanker Requirements Study-TRS-05. The requirement defined by TRS-05 based on the Mobility Requirements Study for the year 2005 [MRS-05] results, combined with the results of a parallel KC-135 Extended Life Study, are inputs into the Air Refueling Analysis of Alternatives conducted in 2001 to give a first look at the KC-X solution.

But there is no requirement to replace existing tanker aircraft. the Air Force projected that E and R models have lifetime flying hours limits of 36,000 and 39,000 hours, respectively. According to the Air Force, only a few KC-135s would reach these limits before 2040. The Air Force estimates that their current fleet of KC-135s have between 12,000 to 14,000 flying hours on them-only 33 percent of the lifetime flying hour limit and no KC-135E's will meet the limit until 2040.

The Senate FY2004 defense authorization bill included a requirement for an analysis of alternatives (AOA) to the lease as well as other legislative provisions intended to examine its merits. Air Force Air Mobility Command and Defense Department studies specifically require that the Air Force conduct an AOA. Yet in hearings, the Under Secretary of the Defense for Acquisition, the Air Force Secretary and the Air Force Secretary for Acquisition testified that they have not completed an AOA on aerial tankers during 2003.

House Report 108-354 - NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 2004 noted that one of the justifications provided by the Secretary of the Air Force for proceeding with a lease of KC-767 aircraft to modernize the Air Force's aerial refueling capability is the deleterious effect of corrosion on the material condition of the current KC-135 fleet of aerial refueling aircraft. The conferees believed that an up-to-date, independent assessment of the material condition of the KC-135 aerial refueling fleet is warranted. Neither the House bill nor the Senate amendment included a provision that would direct that an assessment of the material condition of the KC-135 fleet of aerial refueling aircraft be conducted.

The conferees expected that the assessment would be made by an entity outside of the Department of Defense (DOD), and should include the following data and analysis for KC-135E and KC-135R aircraft for each year from fiscal year 1996 through fiscal year 2003: (1) trend analysis for operational readiness; (2) trend analysis for organizational and depot-level maintenance manhours, with specific breakout of corrosion control and prevention manhours; (3) numbers of aircraft grounded due to corrosion and length of time each aircraft was grounded; (4) itemization of improved corrosion control processes which resulted in decreased manhours for corrosion control and treatment; (5) analysis of the relationship between manhours for corrosion repair and improved processes; and (6) analysis of major structural repairs required due to corrosion.

Section 133 of H.R. 4200 Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005 as cleared by the Congress on October 9, 2004 would modify the authority provided in current law which allows the Air Force to acquire 100 KC-767 tankers through a hybrid acquisition strategy to "lease" no more than 20 tanker aircraft and purchase as many as 80 additional aircraft under multiyear procurement authority.

In late 2007 a "split-buy" replacement strategy was being debated as the best policy to replace our aging aerial refueling tanker fleet. Under the "split-buy" proposal, the Air Force and the Department of Defense would simultaneously develop, test and procure two tanker aircraft. Proponents assert that this policy would reduce costs through enhanced competition and expand operational flexibility to the Air Force. Under this proposal, the Air Force would be forced to coordinate the utilization of a fleet of tankers with vastly different capabilities, operational requirements and infrastructure needs. Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, states that "Sustaining two different lines.would raise the Air Force's acquisition costs by well over a billion dollars annually compared with just running one line."

In January 2008, Boeing funded and released a 53-page study by Conklin & de Decker that showed Boeing's 767 airplane consumed 24 percent less fuel than the larger A330 and would save about $14.6 billion in fuel costs over 40 years. The study used published data to calculate the fuel consumption of flying a fleet of 179 767-200ER and Airbus A330-200 aircraft over a 40-year service life. The Air Force's Request for Proposal called for a highly capable, medium-sized, low-risk and low-cost refueling tanker to replace its aging fleet of KC-135 tankers.

On 14 February 2008 Northrop Grumman Corporation announced that comprehensive analyses indicate that its KC-30 Tanker proposed to the U.S. Air Force in the KC-X Tanker Replacement Program can provide the service more than $55 billion in cost savings over 40 years -- almost $1.4B per year -- compared to its competitor, the KC-767 Advanced Tanker (AT). The more modern and fuel-efficient KC-30 offers about 20 percent more capability than the KC-767AT. Northrop Grumman's KC-30 Tanker carries 45,000 more pounds of fuel than a KC-135 or KC-767AT. That means that the KC-30 can meet the same refueling requirements flying 20 percent fewer hours.

The KC-767's smaller footprint allows more tankers in fewer bases, and puts more booms in the sky allowing fighter strike packages to meet demanding targeting requirements. The KC-767 is derived from the most fuel efficient wide-body aircraft in service today and burns an estimated 24% less fuel than its competitor, saving approximately $10 billion in fuel costs over the life cycle of a 179 aircraft fleet.

On 10 March 2009 Josh Rogin, CQ Staff writer reported that the the Office of Management and Budget given the Pentagon guidance to delay procurement of aerial refueling tankers by five years and cancel plans for a new long-range bomber.

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