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. Recent testimony by the Commander, USTRANSCOM 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-l0s 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.
In 2018, USTRANSCOM Acquisition (AQ) conducted initial market research on commercial air refueling capabilities with industry and released the first request for information (RFI). The research led to discussions with Air Mobility Command (AMC) on the viability of a potential commercial air refueling program. In early 2019, USTRANSCOM formed a Commercial Air Refueling Working Group, with members from AMC, to look at current (and historical) air refueling demands exceeding tanker air refueling capacity.
In June-July 2019, USTRANSCOM and AMC released a second RFI and sponsored an Industry Day to discuss commercial solutions to the estimated air refueling shortfalls. This resulted in the conceptualization of five potential commercial contract air refueling solutions.
The five potential solutions are:
(1) Government Furnished Equipment to a contractor;
(2) Government sale or lease of surplus aircraft to a contractor;
(3) Foreign government surplus tankers purchased and used for contract air refueling;
(4) Modifying existing commercial aircraft to perform contracted boom air refueling support; and
(5) the use of a commercial off-the-shelf tanker for contract air refueling support.
On 17 Dec 2019, AMC sponsored another Industry Day to determine the viability of each of these options from industry's perspective. The commercial contract companies showed an interest in solutions 1, 3, 4, and 5.
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.
One number that jumps out in the report: $98,000. That’s the hourly flight hour cost of the KC-46A in 2019. The KC-10 and KC-135 cost $23,000-26,000. The USAF and Boeing say the KC-46’s hourly cost will decline as the fleet achieves a steady state at around 50,000 flight hours.— Steve Trimble (@TheDEWLine) June 15, 2020
Commercial contractors desire a long-term contract structure, of possibly up to 10 years, in order to obtain the necessary return on investment. The group did not consider any organic solutions due to the report's task to assess commercial contract air refueling.
The combined working group expanded to include Headquarters Air Force (HAF) members. The group found the data required to assess the five contract solutions lacked substantive information to warrant the additional air refueling capability; specifically, a validated requirement as well as the operational/readiness impact of the unfulfilled/unsupported air refuelings. It was determined contractor-operated aerial refueling services for boom-type tankers have legal, regulatory, and financial challenges to overcome in order to proceed.
The combined working group determined further in-depth study is required to analyze the effect of adding commercial aerial refueling capacity on tanker and receiver crew readiness, the legal, regulatory and financial challenges, and potential variations on contract solutions.
In addition, per 10 U.S.C. §§ 129a and 2463, before a contract solution can be adopted that outsources a function currently performed organically, a comparison must be made with the cost of providing the same service. The additional study will provide this comparative analysis while also noting prior attempts to meet steady-state requirements by increasing organic capacity beyond the programmed fleet of 479 aircraft have not been possible due to fiscal constraints and higher priorities elsewhere in the Department.
Within 60 days of the release of this report, AMC will provide for SECAF (or designated representative) approval of the parameters of this additional study, to include specific solutions to be examined, participants, a draft Requirements Approval Document (RAD), and timelines for completion to inform a decision on whether to proceed with solicitation of offers for provision of commercial aerial refueling services.
Until this further study is complete, the USAF should not move further forward towards initiating any contractual arrangements with service providers (Emphasis added—Ed.). Lastly, commercial contract air refueling is not intended to replace current or future tanker aircraft acquisition programs.
Click here for the full report (16 PDF pages), on the Sam.gov website.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The US Air Force appears to have painted itself into a corner in terms of tanker capability.
Having overturned the initial selection of Airbus to replace its old KC-135 tankers, the Air Force awarded the contract to Boeing, which has proved incapable of delivering a working tanker.
Now over a decade old, Boeing’s KC-46 program is delivering aircraft that are rife with faults and that will not be able to refuel other aircraft until 2023-24 – and then only if Boeing fixes the plane’s remote vision system. The KC-46 is now only capable of transport missions.
As the above report shows, attempts to find contractor-supplied in-flight refueling capabilities to make up for the shortfall caused by the KC-46 are likely to fail, not least because of legal obstacles that will prove more difficult to solve than technical problems.)