After almost a decade of failed and delayed efforts to find a new air refueling platform, the USAF is exploring the "rent-a-tanker" concept.
According to Air Force Times, the service will sit down with contractors this week, to discuss the possibility of hiring private firms to provide aerial tanking. Details of the proposal have yet to be developed, but officials told the paper that a request for bids could be issued as early as next year. The contract refueling program is expected to last a minimum of five years, until the new KC-X tankers begin arriving in sufficient numbers and begin replacing Eisenhower-era KC-135s.
While "out-sourced" air refueling would represent a new approach for the Air Force, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have used contract tankers since 2001, in support of training missions both at home and abroad. The same firm--Virginia-based Omega Air Refueling Services--has handled the Navy contract for the past seven years. Several foreign countries, including Britain and Australia, have also used the company's services.
Omega currently operates three private tankers, two Boeing 707s and one DC-10, all converted commercial aircraft. The refueling jets are crewed by former military pilots and flight engineers, with at least 3,000 hours in tanker aircraft.
Still, the proposed Air Force refueling deal is facing a couple of major hurdles. First, there's the issue of cost. Omega currently charges the Navy $7,500 an hour for the 707 tankers, and $12,500 an hour for the converted DC-10. That's slightly cheaper than what the USAF pays to operate its own tankers; figures from Air Mobility Command pegs the cost at $9,750 per flying hour for a KC-135, and $13,910 for a KC-10, the military version of the DC-10.
But, as anyone with experience in military contracts will testify, those savings are often illusory. After all. contractors have been known to "low ball" bids, then go back to the government for more money. In other cases, the military becomes its own worst enemy, inserting requirements that inflate final costs, and either eliminate (or greatly reduce) potential savings.
Then, there's the matter of the refueling system used on Omega tankers. The company's current clients use probe-and-drogue refueling, so you can guess how the contractor's existing tankers are configured. However, USAF aircraft utilize boom refueling, meaning that Omega would have to install that system--on other aircraft--to handle the proposed contract.
That represents a sizable investment; a company spokesman says if Omega receives an Air Force contract, it would convert two DC-10s to support the deal. A service official estimates that there could be a requirement for a squadron of private tankers (8-12 aircraft), if the USAF will commit to a long-term deal.
However, even the contract tankers won't be available right away. Omega says it would take two years to convert and re certify the DC-10s for the Air Force mission. Refurbishing more aircraft for the tanker mission would take even longer. The timeline becomes an issue when you consider that the first KC-X refuelers should be available between 2013 and 2015. If that schedule proves realistic, does it make sense to spend millions of additional dollars on contract tankers during the same period?
Sadly, the answer appears to be yes. Congressional wrangling and contract problems have created delays in the KC-X program, and forecast deliveries for 2013 are optimistic, at best. Additionally, the demands on our tanker fleet are expected to remain constant in the years to come, with on-going operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, more KC-135s are reaching the end of their service lives, so the number of available refuelers will decline, even with contractor support.
The potential deal is just one more reminder of how the Air Force has bungled its tanker competition. Almost a decade into the process, the service has yet to select a new refueling platform. The USAF isn't entirely at fault, but it deserves most of the blame. If the Air Force hadn't embarked on its corrupt "tanker lease" effort a few years ago, the service might be taking deliveries of new airframes right now. Instead, there's a scramble on to fill the gap, with solutions that are less-than-optimum.
It's also worth noting that the Air Force's tanker woes had an indirect influence on the Navy's initial decision to seek contract refueling services. During recent conflicts, thirty percent of all KC-135 sorties have been flown in support of Navy aircraft. With more KC-135s heading toward the bone yard--and the retirement of the USN's KA-6 and KA-3 tankers--the Navy had little choice but to seek a creative solution to its tanker requirements. While contract refuelers don't fly in combat, they "free up" military assets to support those operations.