I was catching up on the KC-46 Pegasus program when I read this story and this story, among others, discussing further delays and issues with the USAF’s long awaited new tanker. All this reminded me of a question I have asked for so long: Why has it become so hard for the USAF to develop and procure a new tanker?

Then And Now

The 1950s saw the first jet tanker built by Boeing and fielded by the USAF. This aircraft was the KC-135 Stratotanker, and 60 years and some new engines later it remains the backbone of America’s tanker force. How on earth could we have gotten the tanker concept that right on the first try, way back then, in a time of drafting tables and slide rules, yet we have so much trouble fielding a suitable replacement 60 years later in an age of iPhones and computer aided drafting? Especially considering these replacements are based on airliners that have been flying for decades, the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330.

The truth is that the Manhattan Project took far less time than it has taken to procure just a partial replacement for the KC-135 Stratotanker fleet, and this new aircraft is hardly a clean-sheet design. It is really a commercial airplane that has been built for decades, with some military avionics added, a refueling boom installed below its tail and hose and drogue refueling pods added to its wings to transfer gas to other aircraft.

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What’s worse is that the KC-767, the export precursor to America’s KC-46A Pegasus currently in development, has been flying operationally overseas for years, yet even getting the KC-767, or its European analogue, the KC-30, to where it is today was a major undertaking fraught with overruns, delays and even breakaway parts.

The KC-767, which is serving with Italy and Japan, was the better part of a decade behind schedule. The Airbus KC-30 actually had not one, but two aerial refueling booms break off the aircraft during testing an pre-delivery flights. The KC-30’s boom is about 40 feet long retracted and almost 60 feet long extended, so one of these falling away from a plane cruising at around 25,000 feet is a major threat to human life, both in the air and on the ground below. Luckily nobody was hurt in either case.

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At the time of the second incident, Australia was the only country operating the KC-30 with a boom (that has changed since) and they were told to stop using it until an investigation into the issue was been completed. Hardly the thing you want to hear in regards to an extremely expensive, low-density, high-demand asset like a brand new aerial tanker. Luckily, the vast majority of Australia’s aerial refueling capable aircraft use the hose and drogue system, not the boom.

With state of the art aerial refueling booms falling off of aircraft and decades long development timelines to even get these aircraft operational, one has to ask themselves: what the hell is so hard about taking an existing wide-body airliner, with an existing track record of millions of hours in the sky, and turning it into a tanker?

What am I missing here?

The KC-135 took from 1954 to 1957, just three years, from the time the jet aerial refueling competition was launched to the time the aircraft became operational. When it comes to the KC-46, it took the DoD and Congress 10 years just to pick an airplane to buy under the stumbling, spastic and downright alarming KC-X procurement initiative. Yes, politics were partly to blame, but there are other factors as well.

What should have been a seemingly straight forward process ended up being wrought with scandal, competition do-overs, and face-palming moments. Now it appears that America faces yet another long design and testing process, one that is already over budget and behind schedule, with the KC-46 demonstrator (not a production configuration) having taken to the skies only recently. Is this another “here we go again” moment in Pentagon procurement hell? After a decade of fumbling the next generation tanker ball up and down the field, we just can’t tell yet.

First Hand Account

A couple years back, I took a ride on a KC-135T. It was not my first time in a tanker by any means, but this particular aircraft made its first flight well before JFK was inaugurated. Even by KC-135 standards, this thing was very old. Although it was extremely well taken care of by its owners, it was nonetheless a relic that would seem more at home being flown by John Travolta to Oshkosh than in uniform delivering gas to thirsty aggressors over the Nellis Range Complex.

The crew said that overall the aircraft may be a dinosaur, but it liked to fly and was fairly reliable, but once again, everything is relative when you are talking about 50+ year old hardware.

This jet in particular had a unique symphony of groans and croaks as it pushed through the sky. At one point during cruise, I heard a grinding sound I’ve never heard in my life and asked the boom operator what it was. His reply: “I have no idea dude, I have never heard that before either, but this thing makes all types of strange noises we can’t figure out.” He then shrugged and went back to filling out some paperwork.

Whenever you fly aboard a KC-135, it is apparent that its systems are rudimentary. It is a no-frills tool, an old “dawn of the jet age” transporter with a pod in the back where the boomer lies down, looks through a bay window, and transfers gas to thirsty aircraft. Even the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit is an afterthought, as it is mounted inside the middle of the cabin in a huge box-like contraption.

Operating a KC-135 on a refueling mission is generally a three crew affair and the flight deck is a surprising uncluttered mix of fairly new EFIS color displays and ancient steam gauges mounted behind weathered glass. The boom is actually a huge pleasure to ‘fly,’ with light inputs on its twin joysticks being needed to swirl it around. When you move the boom from side to side, the whole aircraft skids a bit. The whole thing is an amazingly simple “nuts and bolts” affair.

Bottom line, the KC-135 is a no-nonsense platform that is still working 50 years after its entry into service and seems like it will continue doing so for decades to come, for better or for worse. But they will not last forever. Eventually, the fleet will be totally worn through. And that time may be coming sooner than anyone wants to admit.

Booms & Busts

The Air Force and its industry partners are very good at transforming a simple set of requirements into a convoluted “and the kitchen sink too” rubric of frivolous must-haves. Concepts that seem great in a Power Point presentation turn out to be needless wastes of both time and money. Even if these high-tech ‘innovations’ end up being realized on time and on budget, the question often remains: why fix what was not broken in the first place?

One of the biggest and most glaring examples of unneeded high-tech solutions for low-tech non-problems is the change in how new aerial tankers will refuel their “customers.” Boom operators, known as “Booms” in USAF parlance, who sit in their glass-ended bubbles handing out gas to thirsty aircraft, have done so visually, through a window, for 60+ years, even before the KC-135 ever flew.

Simply put, the method of staring directly at the receiving aircraft and “flying” the tanker’s boom into the receiver’s receptacle is a proven, reliable, and historically safe way to refuel aircraft in mid-air, in almost any situation. Yet somehow, this time-tested “analog” method of aerial refueling has been thrown (quite literally) out the window.

On new generation tankers, boom operators have to sit in front of 3D TV screens (and yes, they’re wearing 3D glasses) embedded in huge control control consoles that repeat stereoscopic video feeds from cameras mounted around the aircraft. From here, deep within the aircraft’s cabin, they will virtually “fly” the boom’s probe into an awaiting aircraft’s receptacle. That’s right, on American and European next generation tankers there is no boom pod, no rear facing big window or even any boom operators controls within actual line of sight of the aircraft they are servicing. Instead, aerial gassing has been turned into an expensive video game that relies on a whole constellation of cutting edge and expensive electronic hardware. Sounds like a solution to a problem that does not exist doesn’t it?

I have yet to have a boom operator give me a justification for this new virtual boom operator’s system. If aircraft contractors say it will cost way too much to physically attach a boomer’s station to a 767 then the USAF should ask them how they did it with ease at the dawn of the jet age with the KC-135, and then again with the KC-747 in the 1970s, and then again with the KC-10 Extender in the early 1980s? What magic wand did Boeing and McDonnell Douglas have back then and where on earth did that magic wand go because we really need to find it. It seems as if with the loss of that wand, our drive for simplified, low-risk procurement solutions based on proven systems and successful practices was lost as well.

Also, consider that Boeing will elaborately modify their commercial aircraft for military needs. Huge radomes, massive antenna fairings, weapons bays and just about any other modification you can imagine have been done to Boeing airliners over the years. So grafting a rear window onto the a 767’s tail seems like a small request in comparison.

Why change a proven, robust, and known system that has safely worked for over half a century? 3D goggles can break, stereoscopic cameras can go dark and control consoles can malfunction, but a window is always “on.”

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I am sure Boeing and Airbus have some big cost analysis describing how somehow such a system will save the USAF money over decades of service, but really, that is very hard to believe as it requires new training simulators, lots of high-end hardware to install and maintain, and most importantly, development time and money. In actuality, those reasons may be exactly why this new aerial refueling interface exists in the first place, because it will it will mean big development, support and upgrade dollars for defense contractors for decades to come, something a mechanical boom, some levers and window can’t provide.

The remote boom operator’s station is really just micro-sized example of why and how large defense programs spin totally out of control. The seller keeps telling the buyer about new options that can be added to a weapons system and the buyer keeps adding them on, along with their own inventions and concepts, until there is such a backlog of changes to the original design and integration plan, and so much additional cash required to field all the demands, that the program begins to enter the death spiral into budgetary oblivion. But even without these mid-program changes, sometimes new technology is just frivolous and only introduces more points of failure and cost into a system, not less.

The Low Risk, Low Price, Available Now Solution

Being the word’s preeminent aerial fighting force does not require every single platform to be completely cutting edge just for cutting edge’s sake. Instead, the Pentagon needs to pick and choose where to strategically spend their “cutting edge” dollars and where to spend their “need the hardware on the ramp yesterday” dollars.

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Case in point: the KC-46 isn’t any existing aircraft at all, it deviates from the already painstakingly developed KC-767 that the Italians and Japanese use. An aircraft’s whose development is already paid for in full. Instead, the KC-46 combines the 767-200ER’s fuselage, with the 767-300F’s wing, gear, cargo door and floor, with the 767-400ER digital flightdeck and flaps. It then pairs this hodgepodge of components with uprated engines and a “sixth-generation” fly-by-wire remote controlled boom and adds various other US specific sub-systems. So now you have a plane whose components may have been in production for many decades, but has never actually flown in the KC-46A form.

The realities of the crazy KC-X competition aside, the USAF probably would be better served with the already developed and proven KC-767 and thrown out all the gadgetry such as “remote booms” in order to get the hardware out there ASAP at the lowest possible cost and lowest possible developmental and operational risk.

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Sure, the KC-767 may have slightly less range, or it may use 1000 more feet of runway when totally grossed out on takeoff when compared to the KC-46 Pegasus “frankenplane,” but if we can get it cheaper and faster, and it will be more reliable, who really cares? Any slight capability lapses will only impact a tiny percentage of the theoretical missions the plane may actually be called to perform during service. Furthermore, when compared to the ancient KC-135 that the USAF already has in droves, the KC-767 is an upgrade of epic proportions, so why jeopardize a program with added development time, cost and risk for relatively minor performance improvements?

Once the basic KC-767 platform has been proven in service, and the initial batch of aircraft are delivered, then the USAF could elect to upgrade to a different configuration with larger wings, more powerful engines, remote booms and whatever else they want on a “KC-X dream jet” for the next block of aircraft. There are many hundreds of KC-135s needing to be replaced, as well as the KC-10 eventually, so it is not like the initial 767 based tankers will be the last tanker configuration America will buy for a century.

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The USAF simply needed to buy the simple solution that is totally available off the shelf today, and that was the KC-767, for the first 90 units. Then they would reevaluate its configuration choice when optioning the next 89 units and so on. The USAF can still commit to a total of 179 tankers based on the 767, just not a single gold-plated baseline configuration to start with. If they were to have done this, the KC-767 would be flying today and the most costly to operate KC-135s would be rattle snake umbrellas in the desert right now.

A High-Low Capability Mix?

The reality is that often times existing tanker aircraft fly and only use a fraction of their true offloading or transporting capability on a single mission. Domestic sorties often only see tankers pass dozens of tons of gas to a division of fighters, or to fly a few dozen personnel from one point to another.

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Even overseas, having to operate a 767 sized aircraft from austere forward operating bases with tight confines seems like overkill just to have some type of organic boom and receptacle aerial refueling capability available. Even worse, the tanker may have to fly a thousands miles or more just to get on station to provide those fighters with fuel. With this in mind, you have to wonder if we really need a wide body converted airliner to fly these missions at all? Isn’t there a better, more cost effective and flexible solution instead of a one-size fits all?

In addition to a 767 based tanker, why not field smaller tactical tankers, possibly based on the 737, Gulfsteam or Global Express airframe, that do not cost a fortune per hour to operate, are commercially available off the shelf at a far lower cost than a KC-46, and can do many of the KC-135′s current tasks at a fraction of the cost? More so, they can do things a strategic tanker can’t do, like escorting a package of fighters into enemy territory or operating out of austere airfields with short runways.

Israel Aircraft Industries offers this exact solution with their tactical tanker concept. You can see its unique attributes and concept of operations in the graphic below:

The USAF should ask if they really need a KC-46 or KC-767 to drag a single F-22 back to the states from Hawaii for depot maintenance or to provide tanker qualifications for a local F-16 fighter wing? I don’t think so. Once again, a flexible and diverse fleet of tanker aircraft will save America much more than a “one size fits all” gold-plated one. It’s simple math, and operating costs and procurement savings would far outweigh any “commonality” savings realized by a fleet of hundreds of KC-46s alone.

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If the DoD could buy three G650 based tankers for the price of one KC-46, a mixed fleet procurement strategy would greatly help in replacing the hundreds of KC-135s that cannot keep flying forever. Remember, no matter how capable a tanker is, it can only be in one place at one time, and that is usually on the ground.

Under such a structure, aircraft could be assigned based on the mission at hand, with the Gulfstream or 737 based tankers providing training and tactical mission support and the $200 million KC-46 being used for strategic, high-endurance missions.

Privatization

Another option would be to increase America’s privatized tanker capacity on a grand scale. Omega Air has done a great job over the years for the US Navy and for foreign air arms at providing an elastic refueling capability at a reasonable cost. For training flights and for dragging fighters aircraft across oceans, why not let private industry help furnish needed tanker capacity as the business model is already well proven?

If the USAF is worried about losing a portion of a staple capability to private industry then that is a symptom of the disease that has infected that service. Every penny should be wisely spent in order to add combat capability and end strength to the total force. If giving up a portion of the tanking mission to private industry allows for savings, and those savings can be applied to other programs which are greatly in need of funds, than why in the world would the USAF not do it? Pride? Fear of eroding mission sets? None of these petty issues effect our ability to wage war.

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The USAF will have to begin changing its ways as flying an all fifth generation fleet of stealth fighters will require savings in other areas to pay for their costly operations, and the free market is a great place to find such efficiencies. Then again, droves of USAF leadership will probably not get a major promotion or a high six figure industry job after they retire by outsourcing a logical portion of the USAF’s tanking capacity to private contractors, so there is that hurdle to overcome.

Outsourcing a portion of the USAF’s aerial refueling mission to private contractors would also allow the USAF to begin retiring a greater number of KC-135s in the near term, saving greatly on expensive sustainment costs for these aging aircraft. Additionally, private industry could help defer new tanker development costs as they most likely would be in the market for such an aircraft. Even a semi-privatized model, like what the Royal Air Force has implemented with its KC-30 Voyager Multi-Role Tanker Transport fleet is worth evaluating as well. Under such a scheme, a private contractor co-operates the aircraft with the Royal Air Force, and uses the aircraft for charter flights when the RAF is not in need of them.

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There is also the issue of advanced, semi-autonomous, unmanned systems becoming major players in air combat in the not so distant future. One of the biggest benefits of these craft is that they possess greater and endurance than their human piloted counterparts.

For instance, popular unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) concepts often have three times the combat radius of an F-16. This means that they will have less of a need for aerial refueling, being able to perform more mission sets without it and having to tank less when it is needed. Additionally, they will be served just as well, if not much better, by tanking off of other autonomous aircraft instead of manned ones. By connecting via data-link, unmanned tanker and ‘customer’ unmanned aircraft can more easily mate with one another and they can deconflict traffic with other unmanned aircraft awaiting refueling with nearly perfect efficiency.

In other words, advanced unmanned systems may be better served by taking the human element out of the aerial refueling equation altogether. In fact, the Navy’s unmanned carrier aircraft program, known as UCLASS, sees aerial refueling, both as the provider and the customer, as a highly sought after requirement.

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We are clearly in the middle of a confusing and revolutionary time in air combat history, with autonomous unmanned systems role in future combat still remaining murky, although you would be a good gambler if you bet on them taking over many tasks in the not so distant future. As a result, buying tanking capabilities from private contractors on a per hour or term basis allows the Pentagon to lower its risk by not having to invest in many hundreds of very expensive tankers that may be in much lower demand in the not so distant future.

Buying Used

Israel’s Bedek Divsion of IAI has done just that with their 767 based Multi-Mission Tanker Transport conversion concept. Just as the USAF did with the KC-10 program, IAI hand selects used 767 airframes and adapts them using modular components to the MMTT role. Today, both the Colombian Air Force and Brazilian Air Force fly the MMTT.

Although it may not offer all the capability of a brand new, totally optimized KC-46, it can do the vast majority of its tasks at a fraction of the procurement cost. IAI Bedek Division’s VP of business development, Jack Gaber, was quoted by Janes describing the MMTT’s advantage:

“The A330 and KC-46 are very expensive and for the rich people... Why buy new-build aircraft when you can get a converted aircraft for so much cheaper? I have a hard time understanding that... Life-cycle costs don’t justify [buying a new aircraft] either. There is a honeymoon period at the beginning of an aircraft’s life, when engines can stay on wings longer before overhaul etc, but over the 20-or-so years of an aircraft’s life there is no real difference. Some potential customers think that a 20-year-old aircraft is too old, but it is not. Of the 60 converted B767-200 and B767-300 aircraft that are now flying [including freighter conversions], reliability has been exceptional - 99% in some cases.”

Check out IAI’s full brochure on its MMTT concept by clicking here.

Maybe the USAF is looking in the wrong place for at least a portion of its tanker needs. Instead of the one size fits all straight off the showroom floor option that encompasses the KC-X and the subsequent KC-46 program as we know it today, why not look toward the used market for airframes and retrofit them for the tanker-transport mission?

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Once again, the entire KC-135 replacement plan does not have to be centered around a used 767 conversion, but maybe 50 or 75 aircraft could. Considering that you are getting 85 percent of the KC-46’s capabilities at one quarter the cost while retaining 767 commonality, how can’t this option be explored? Once again, maybe because it is an unglamorous and blue collar solution to a relatively straight forward problem, and won’t make any big US prime defense contractors socked with income for decades to come.

Needed: Procurement And Development Revolution

The American taxpayer has been sold down the river with never-ending development and test programs for over complicated and frivolous one-size-fits-all capabilities that only deliver a more rigid and budget busting force in the long run than many simpler alternatives. The DoD needs to put creative thinkers in positions of power that can not only win on the battlefield, but also in the accountant’s office.

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We desperately need to learn how to apply the “what is the cheapest, fastest, lowest risk way to give us the requirements needed to get the mission done,” mantra instead of the “what is the most capability we can do with a single machine, regardless of cost or of the fact that a single airframe can only be in one place at one time” mindset. There is a time and place for the ‘and the kitchen sink’ mentality, such as for lower density, high-end, first day of war, front-line weapon systems that are meant to kick down the enemy’s door and make fighting accessible to plentiful lower-end systems. Aerial tankers, no matter how much the USAF has become addicted to them (which is a whole other issue), do not need to be complicated weapons systems.

After at least 15 years of drama, the USAF should ask itself: if it is really this hard to field a cargo hauler and aerial refueler, maybe the one-size-fits-all, gold-plated solution to America’s tanker conundrums is simply not meant to be and they should approach the problem from a different, more creative angle going forward.

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The hard truth is that the USAF will not solve its massive tanker issue with the KC-46 alone. There is not enough money to replace the KC-135 and the KC-10 on a one-to-one basis. The solution will need to be found by applying a cocktail of smaller solutions that equate to a greater collective force than the sum of their parts. Regardless of the economic realities involved, a single, one-size fits all solution, does not always represent the best value, and the word ‘outsourcing’ does not always have a negative connotation.

In the end, the services are going to have to learn when to pick their high-tech and costly procurement battles instead of acting like a toddler in a toy store where they always act as if their next toy will be the last one they will ever get to buy.

As far as development goes, to a large degree, the aerospace industry in America has lost its way. It is sad but true. Sometimes a boom can be just a boom. Not everything has to be Star Wars and Steve Jobs. Just because you can apply new technology to something does not mean it is beneficial or cost effective. But considering the “show it on Power Point and they will buy it” proven business model that exists, with the Pentagon being the suckers they are, how can you really blame industry for piling on the expensive tech, even if it is not needed?

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Still, big aerospace defense contractors need to look back in history and find out how incredibly complex problems (at the time) were solved so efficiently and without the incredible technological benefits we enjoy today. Maybe there is a systemic issue in our engineering educational process or within the the workflow itself that has hampered our ability to create fast and cost effective solutions to relatively straight-forward problems.

As for the USAF itself, some words of observational wisdom:

Usually the easiest way to get what you need is by not to asking for everything you could possibly want. This maybe counter-intuitive for Federal Employees, but in the real world, spend it all or lose it is a budgetary fantasy. Otherwise, you may end up with your dream machine, but with far too few of them to be effective and no money to actually use them like you had originally planned.

Columbia AF MMTT via Chris Lofting/Wikicommons, KC-767 low angle rear shot via Tim Felce/Wikicommons, all other photos via author, DoD and Industry.

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Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com