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Taxed by wars, aging air tankers suffer fleet fatigue

  •    CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that the service’s two tanker models off-loaded more than 1 million pounds of fuel to 82,000 aircraft in 2009 in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. It should have said they off-loaded more than 1 billion pounds of fuel.Since 2001 Air Mobility Command tankers have pumped more than 12 billion pounds of fuel into aircraft worldwide. Also, Tech. Sgt. Kevin Harding's rank was incorrect.

RAF MILDENHALL, England — The last new KC-135 Stratotanker was delivered to the U.S. Air Force in 1964. After nearly a decade of war, the fleet’s age is showing, most profoundly to the men and women on the ground who keep the 415 tankers flying.

Two wars, political bickering, shady dealings and Air Force missteps have delayed the development of a new airborne refueling tanker for much of the past decade. In the meantime, airmen are left to keep this Eisenhower-era granddaddy of the fleet mission-ready, an increasingly difficult and expensive task.

“How many cars do you see driving from 1956?” asked Staff Sgt. Dan Kirstler, of the 100th Air Refueling Wing’s maintenance squadron at RAF Mildenhall.

Outside analysts and Air Force officials agree that aerial refueling is key to American power projection across the globe. It allows fighter jets, unmanned aerial vehicles and a variety of other aircraft to fly farther and longer without having to land for fuel, a particularly helpful advantage in far-flung locales such as Afghanistan.

Although the KC-135 handles the majority of in-air refueling, the Air Force also has 59 KC-10 Extenders in its tanker fleet.

Together, the two tankers off-loaded more than 1 billion pounds of fuel to 82,000 aircraft in 2009 alone, according to the Air Force’s Combined Air and Space Operation Center. Crews flew 17,465 sorties to make that happen.

Since 2001, Air Mobility Command tankers have pumped more than 12 billion pounds of fuel into aircraft high in the sky.

Gen. Arthur Lichte, former head of Air Mobility Command, placed a new tanker at the top of his wish list during a 2009 Air Force Association forum.

“It’s all about the tankers,” said Lichte, who retired earlier this year. “We need tankers now. I stood here … in September 2007 and said tankers were my No. 1 priority. I said it last year. I said it this year. And I still don’t have a new tanker.”

Only the beginning

A long-awaited $35 billion contract for new tanker construction is expected to be awarded by the Air Force this fall. That job is for only 179 of the so-called KC-X, the first of which isn’t due until 2015 and will be phased in over the next 15 years.

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That will only begin to solve the problem.

While the current tanker fleet has received upgrades and modifications over the years, including new engines, the Defense Department’s stated goal of procuring 15 new tankers a year means the last KC-135 will be more than 80 years old at retirement, according to a 2009 Congressional Research Service report.

Aircraft have an expected life cycle of about 25 years, according to Robbin Laird, an international defense consultant and co-founder of Second Line of Defense, a website that focuses on military capability.

“Aging infrastructure is not unique to tankers, but it’s really the highway on which we operate,” Laird said of the KC-135. “The highway is crumbling.”

On flight lines around the world, KC-135 maintainers are charged with keeping these elders mission-ready.

Radio problems and fuel leaks are common, Tech. Sgt. Kevin Harding said, and Mildenhall’s tankers often seem to develop the same problems at the same time, what he called “the flavor of the quarter.”

“Things that weren’t happening 50 years ago are happening now,” he said. “It’s just old.”

Some of the problems, such as seals contracting and expanding with the weather, are to be expected on different planes. The KC-135’s age exacerbates the problem.

Maintenance airmen also say they regularly face new fix-it problems that aren’t necessarily addressed in the service’s collective KC-135 maintenance knowledge.

Due to the work it takes to keep the tankers flying, maintainers sometimes have to “rack and stack” work orders, prioritizing which repair jobs require immediate attention and which can be delayed, Harding said.

Stories of near-misses abound among maintainers at Mildenhall. There was the time a plane from a stateside base had landing gear problems and ground its wheels down to the truck when it landed, and the time a refueling boom malfunctioned and the air crew had to jettison its fuel before landing with the boom arm down.

It’s getting harder to keep the planes airborne, and maintainers face an increased workload as the wheezing KC-135 finds new ways to show its age.

“Time does its damage,” Kirstler said. “But she’s all we got until we get a new tanker.”

At what cost?

KC-135s are old, but they’re not falling out of the sky. Analysts say the tanker could theoretically be flown for decades to come.

But with age comes a greater expense, as an airplane from another era works to fill the needs of the modern day military. It’s never clear what tomorrow’s maintenance problems will be, or the effect on the aerial refueling mission.

About 100 of the oldest Stratotanker models have been grounded since 2006 due to age, said Scott Hamilton, head of aviation consultancy Leeham Co.

An Air Mobility Command study released this year found that the Air Force would fall short of its aerial refueling needs in two out of three worst-case global war scenarios, in part because about 20 percent of KC-135s are in the shop at any given time.

Demand for the KC-135’s service will remain high, Laird said, but so will attrition.

“You’re asking a product that was well-designed 50 years ago … to pretend it’s a 21st-century asset,” he said. “You could do it, but at what cost?”

The Air Force will need more than 40 years to deploy about 600 new tankers and completely replace the current fleet, at a cost that could end up at roughly $170 million per aircraft, according to the 2009 Congressional report.

Maintaining the existing KC-135 fleet will become pricier in the coming years, as well.

It will cost the Air Force up to $6 billion annually later on in the decade to maintain the KC-135’s, and the tankers will require new outer panels and wiring to remain airborne in the coming years, according to the Congressional report.

The KC-135 was built decades ago by Boeing for the Air Force. The corporation then took that model and rolled out its Boeing 707 commercial airliner, which has been out of production since the 1970s, Hamilton said. That makes procuring replacement parts more difficult.

“No airline in the world flies [the 707] other than a few third-world cargo carriers,” he said. “The older the airplane gets, the higher the maintenance costs.”

Maintainers say getting replacement parts for the KC-135 is a recurring problem.

One tanker recently needed a new door, but none was available, according to Master Sgt. Joel Fernandez. After consulting with wing engineers, the maintainers were told to fabricate their own door.

And they did.

‘A political football’

The process of getting a company to build a new tanker has been repeatedly hijacked over the past 10 years, even as the KC-135s groaned under the high tempo of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing won a $20 billion contract to build new tankers in 2002, but the deal was paused the following year amid allegations that the Air Force’s top acquisition official, Darleen Druyun, was involved in shady back deals with the corporation and that the contract was bloated to favor Boeing, according to a 2005 CBS news report.

Druyun pleaded guilty in 2004 to giving Boeing preferential treatment during the bidding process.

The quest resumed in 2007. A partnership between Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS) won the contract in early 2008.

Boeing appealed, alleging that the Air Force’s bidding process was flawed and biased. The Government Accountability Office agreed with that allegation in a June 2008 ruling which found that the Air Force, “in making the award decision, did not assess the relative merits of the proposals in accordance with the evaluation criteria identified in the solicitation.”

The Pentagon reopened the bidding in August 2008, but closed it a month later, according to an Air Force time line of events.

This latest contract round is particularly crucial in today’s dismal economy. Winning the new tanker contract will mean new jobs for Boeing factories in Washington state and Kansas.

EADS North America announced in a July press release that it is relocating its tanker program team to Mobile, Ala. Although it has not been awarded the new tanker contract, EADS said the “new aircraft center of excellence” would create more than 1,500 “direct jobs” and thousands more in the greater Gulf Coast area. Nationwide, production of a new tanker would create or support 48,000 American jobs, according to the company.

At each failed attempt to get a new tanker contract awarded, politicians from the states set to benefit from the jobs increase have interceded for all the wrong reasons, Hamilton said.

“The whole thing has become a political football rather than a proper military procurement,” he said. “And while everyone piously likes to say we’re concerned about the needs of the war fighter, they’re more concerned about the job programs in their district.”

While political squabbles and Air Force impropriety have slowed tanker acquisition to a crawl over the past decade, the KC-135 and other assets have had to deal with the crushing military tempo post-9/11.

“The fact that we had the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the cost that goes associated with those things, has bled the armed services dry of equipment renewal and equipment procurement,” Hamilton said.

While the in-air refueling provided by tankers is essential to maintaining U.S. military might, smaller ally countries will be getting new tankers before the U.S. Air Force, said Laird, who advocates awarding contracts to Boeing and EADS, and then selling excess tankers to allies.

“The [Australian military] will have their tanker before we have our tanker,” he said. “Maybe we can borrow them in Afghanistan.”

On a mission

Half a world away from the Washington power nodes, where the next Air Force tanker’s fate waits to be decided, Mildenhall maintainers say they’re doing more with less and will continue to do so.

With thirsty jets needing fuel above the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, maintainers say they will find a way to get the job done.

“It’s a pride thing,” Harding said. “We will do what it takes to make that plane fly.”

geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

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