Air Force Says These Are Its Options For Hiring Private Aerial Refueling Companies

Between its aging KC-135 and KC-10 tanker fleets and problems with the new KC-46A, the Air Force is facing a worrying tanker gap.

byJoseph Trevithick|
KC-10 photo


The U.S. Air Force has released a report it sent to Congress earlier this year about how it might make use of private contractors to provide aerial refueling services to support various non-combat training and testing activities. The service has been exploring this for years now, but there has been an increased impetus for doing so recently given significant issues with the new KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft. The Air Force has said it will not use those aircraft for day-to-day aerial refueling operations of any kind, except in an emergency, until serious problems get fixed, which will take years. This has raised concerns about a tanker gap as its aging KC-135R and KC-10A fleets become more difficult to operate and maintain.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett sent the report, which outlines five separate potential courses of action, many of which The War Zone

has also outlined on multiple occasions in the past, to Congress on April 22, 2020. However, the service only publicly released a copy just last week as part of its ongoing discussions with private companies about a potential aerial refueling services contract. Aviation Week was first to report on the document, which the House Committee on Armed Services had requested as part of the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for the 2020 Fiscal Year.

"Air refueling is a critical capability which sustains Joint force readiness and enables global power projection in support of all National Defense Strategy mission areas," the report says in its executive summary. "Recent testimony by the Commander, USTRANSCOM [U.S. Transportation Command] indicates the aerial refueling fleet is their most-stressed capability and number one readiness concern."

"Degraded readiness of the existing aerial refueling force, delays in delivery of capable KC-46s, planned force structure reductions of KC-10s and KC-135s, and forecasted increases in aerial refueling demand indicate a critical and deepening shortfall in taskable aerial refueling aircraft and aircrews, especially over the next 5-7 years," it continues.

A KC-10A refuels a KC-46A, while a KC-135R flies in the foreground., USAF

It's worth noting that Air Force aerial refueling tankers routinely support U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft during combat operations and non-combat activities, such as training and long-distance movements, as well as providing similar support to American allies and partners overseas. With this in mind, the U.S. military's joint service Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), in cooperation with the Air Force's Air Mobility Command (AMC), which oversees the bulk of the service's tankers, has been in charge of exploring the use of contractors to make up for possible future shortfalls in available aerial refueling support.

It's also important to note that the Navy has been employing private contractor Omega Air Refueling support non-combat activities since 2001. However, the Navy, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps, employ the probe-and-drogue aerial refueling method, while the Air Force uses the boom method. TRANSCOM and the Air Force need boom-equipped tankers, though possibly with secondary probe-and-drogue capability, to meet their requirements, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece. Omega only recently began introducing tankers with booms into its fleets.

A briefing slide showing the Air Force's draft requirements for a potential aerial refueling services contract, as of December 2019., USAF

TRANSCOM did initial market research in 2018, before consulting directly with the AMC. The two organizations established the Commercial Air Refueling Working Group to further explore available options in 2019. That year, after multiple discussions with representatives from private industry, the Working Group crafted five possible contracting options, which are as follows.

Just give contractors Air Force tankers to use

The first proposed option is simply to have contractors fly Air Force tankers as part of a government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) arrangement. This is a concept the U.S. military as a whole routinely employs for various activities, including aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations

The Air Force's report notes that there are potential legal and regulatory hurdles to implementing this course of action, as well as all of the other four proposals, which could at best delay or at worst prohibit the service from pursuing it. In this particular case, the main challenge would be in the time necessary to certify contractors to operate U.S. government-owned aircraft. On top of that, it's not clear if this plan would be viable at all given that the primary issue is a lack of available tankers, not personnel, as well as the age of the aircraft in service now.

"The USAF does not have, at this time, any excess tanker aircraft available to provide to a contractor under a contract for services," the report notes. "Additionally, because of service life issues identified with legacy tanker airframes, further study is needed to determine whether these aircraft would be viable for contract air refueling service."

The report does say that this might be a useful interim option, if "excess legacy aircraft are available" and "the cost and feasibility hurdles to extending the life of legacy aircraft, and commercial sources of qualified personnel can be overcome," to provide time to pursue a more permanent option. The Air Force estimated it would take between 12 and 18 months to implement this strategy after awarding a contract.

Sell or lease surplus tankers to contractors

The second potential course of action the report outlined is to sell or lease surplus aerial refueling tankers to private contractors. At present, there are 14 KC-135Rs at the Bone Yard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, as well as numerous older KC-135 models, though the exact state of these aircraft is unclear. Additional KC-135Rs, as well as KC-10As, could become available to private companies when and if the Air Force is able to proceed with its retirement plans for those aircraft.

KC-135s, among other aircraft, in storage at the Bone Yard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. , kitmasterbloke via Flickr

However, the Air Force's report highlights significant potential legal impediments to this plan. As it stands now, by law, the process for divesting surplus military equipment, including aircraft, is by way of the General Services Administration (GSA) through a public auction, where no preference can be given to a particular buyer, after putting the system in question through a demilitarization process.

"The demilitarization guidance governs the DoD's requirements to demilitarize key military components, to include the aerial refueling systems, which would void the current airworthiness and receiver aircraft air refueling certifications," the report explains. The contractor, if they successfully acquired the aircraft at auction, would then have to restore these capabilities and make the aircraft airworthy again, a time consuming and potentially costly process. 

The report also raises concerns about what might happen if the contractors that bought the tanker decided not to bid on future aerial refueling contracts or otherwise lost out to competitors. Leasing would be another option that could help mitigate this and other concerns, but, by law, the Air Force cannot issue such a contract for more than one year at a time, which would force it to go through this process every 12 months.

The Air Force ultimately described this proposal as being similar in viability to having contractors fly Air Force tankers and another possible near-term option ahead of a more robust solution. However, the service said that it could still take between two and five years to implement this course of action after a contract award.

Have contractors buy foreign surplus tankers

The Air Force's third proposal is to recommend contractors purchase surplus boom-equipped tankers from foreign governments, particularly those that the service previously facilitated the sale of through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Since Air Force Materiel Command was technically the original purchaser of those aircraft, primarily KC-135s delivered to various allies and partners around the world, they already had to been certified to meet its standards. 

A number of foreign KC-135R operators are in the process of retiring those aircraft, if they haven't already, meaning that there will be an increasing number of these aircraft on the open market. The report does highlight that many of these tankers are aging themselves, just like their Air Force counterparts, which could lead to higher operating and maintenance costs. 

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In addition, KC-135Rs supplied to foreign customers do not use the exact same boom as the Air Force's version. "FMS aircraft use what is called a FMS Boom (Boeing proprietary), which is about 75% compatible with the USAF High Speed Boom," the report notes. Unfortunately, there are no current suppliers for the remaining 25 percent of the components that are not common between the two designs. If a new supplier base or another adequate source of spare parts could not be found, there would be a need to modify these booms into a sustainable configuration.

The Air Force added that this course of action could be slowed depending on how hard it might be to get new U.S. type certifications for these aircraft and given the still limited number of properly equipped tankers available for purchase overseas. The report does note that there is "one, and possibly two, commercial air refueling operators are in the process of acquiring used boom-equipped air refueling aircraft from a foreign government that could accelerate the potential feasibility and timeline of this option."

The Air Force did not name either of the two companies in question. However, Omega Air Refueling did acquire a boom-equipped ex-Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10 last year, making it the first private company to acquire a tanker capable of refueling via this method. 

Omega Air's new KDC-10., Don Rogers

With all this in mind, the Air Force said it could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to five to seven years to implement this strategy.

Have contractors use converted commercial aircraft

The fourth potential course of action the Air Force outlined is hiring private contractors to fly non-combat aerial refueling missions using commercial aircraft converted into boom-equipped tankers. This, of course, would require those companies to buy suitable aircraft, modify them, and certify them to meet the service's standards.

This is not to say that this couldn't be done. In 2018, Lockheed and Airbus announced they would team up to offer commercial aerial refueling services using the latter's A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) design, which is already in service around the world, including in a boom-equipped configuration. Other contractors could seek to acquire A330s on the open market and modify those aircraft to a similar configuration.

A Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A, a version of the A330 MRTT with a boom., USAF

The War Zone previously learned that a small contractor called Bison Aerospace and Defense explored what it might take to convert Airbus A310s into boom-equipped tankers, but it is unclear what, if anything, ever came from that effort. We have reached out in the past without getting a response. What was then known as the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, or EADS, demonstrated a version of the A310 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) with a boom in the late 2000s.

The A310 MRTT boom demonstrator., via Wikimedia

Boeing itself has supplied boom-equipped 767-based tankers, known as KC-767s, to foreign air forces in the past, before the development of the troubled KC-46A, which is based on the same airframe, but uses a unique configuration of components from different 767 variants and is more militarized overall. Israel Aerospace Industry’s Bedek Aviation Group has also been selling modified Boeing 767, though primarily with probe-and-drogue refueling systems only. Bedek had planned to offer a boom-equipped version to the Israeli Air Force as a potential replacement for its aging KC-707 tankers, but has said Boeing, which is also vying for that contract with the KC-46, blocked that plan to narrow the competition.

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The Air Force's report said that this was the option with the longest potential timeline to implement, possibly taking between seven and 10 years following a contract award.

Have contractors buy new commercial-off-the-shelf tankers

The fifth and final potential option would be for contractors to acquire brand new tankers from aircraft manufacturers. The Air Force would stipulate that these be existing commercial-off-the-shelf designs to help keep costs low, but the service still said estimated the average unit cost for these aircraft, which aerial refueling companies would have to pay up front, would be around $300 million each.

As already noted, a number of manufacturers are offering boom-equipped tankers. It's possible that those companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Airbus, could cut out the middle man and offer the aircraft themselves, to help keep costs low. 

Utilizing designs that the Air Force may have already certified, or that are similar to tankers the service has already tested, could help ease the ever-present regulatory concerns, as well. The service has already extensively evaluated the A330 MRTT, for instance, as part of two previous tanker competitions.

The Air Force said that it could take at least two years to implement this strategy.

Where does the Air Force go from here?

Private contractors that TRANSCOM and the Air Force consulted with said that they were interested in the first, third, fourth, and fifth proposed courses of action, according to the report. There is no specific explanation for why companies said they were not in favor of the second potential option, the sale or lease of surplus aircraft, though, as noted, that plan did have significant potential issues.

"The cost per flying hour for these solutions ranged from $15,000 to $27,000, but could drop to between $12,000 and $15,000 once the contract capability was established," the report says, but does not specify which options these cost estimates apply to. "Commercial contractors desire a long-term contract structure, of possibly up to 10 years, in order to obtain the necessary return on investment."

The report also reveals that, at present, it costs the Air Force an exorbitant $98,000 per flight hour to operate the KC-46As, despite their limited capabilities, though "cost per flying hour projections for KC-46 will decrease as the program progresses to steady state." By comparison, the KC-135R's cost per flight hour to operate is $26,000, while that of the KC-10A is $23,000. This puts the price of flying the Pegasuses closer to that of the B-2 stealth bomber, which sits at around $122,000 per flight hour, than other tankers.

A KC-46A refuels an F-16C Viper fight jet during a test., USAF

But perhaps what's most interesting, especially given the report's concerns about how long it might take to implement any of the proposed courses of action with a potential tanker gap looming before the decade is over, is how long the Air Force has waited to actively explore alternatives and why. The report notes that the service consulted a report on contractor air refueling that TRANSCOM produced in 1997, as well as one regarding private companies providing both refueling and airlift support that the Office of the Secretary of Defense produced that same year. 

In both cases, no action was taken based on the position that any commercial tankers would need to be able to support combat operations and that they would limit opportunities for the Air Force's own tanker crews to train together with other aircraft. A 2006 RAND Corporation report on KC-135 Recapitalization reiterated those viewpoints. 

In 2008, Congress even compelled the Air Force to conduct a pilot program to assess the costs and other issues related to possibly employing contractor aerial refueling services for certain missions. The Air Force estimated it would cost between $850 and $900 million to hire two contractors to each provide two tankers, with both companies providing 2,400 hours worth of aerial refueling support in total each year over five years. At the time, the Air National Guard said it could provide equivalent support over five years for $215 million and the pilot program was scrapped.

Then, as was the case in 2006 when RAND issued its report, as well, the Air Force did have access to far more aerial refueling tanker capacity and had more available airframes that it does now. The KC-46A program has also now underscored how difficult it has become for the service to field a new tanker. The saga of Boeing's latest design is further magnified when one considers it took the company less than year to go from the first flight the original KC-135, which took place on Aug. 31, 1956, to it entering service.

The Air Force's view of what services contrators can provide has also dramatically evolved in the past two decades. Last year, it hired no less than seven companies to provide "red air" aggressor support, as well as air-to-ground training services, at bases across the country as part of a multi-billion dollar deal.

Whether or not the conclusions from those various assessments were accurate at the tie, the Air Force, together with TRANSCOM, now appears to be steadily moving toward hiring contractors to provide aerial refueling support in some fashion. With the KC-46A still years away from getting the fixes necessary for it to reach its full operational potential, the value of hiring private companies to help meet the demand for additional tanker support will only keep growing.

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