Issue Date: August 23, 2004
Service says it can’t afford repairs, so aircraft may sit idle if not retired
By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writer
Thirty of the Air Force’s oldest aerial tankers may sit unused later this fall if officials can’t convince Congress that the planes should be retired.
The 30 KC-135E Stratotankers need millions of dollars in repairs to replace corroded engine pylons — money the Air Force hadn’t planned to spend. Plans to retire the aging planes would have to be scuttled if key senators succeed in blocking those plans.
Gen. John Handy, commander of Air Mobility Command, described the issue to a group of Washington defense reporters in July.
“The quandary we’re in is we can’t retire them, but we can’t fly them after the first of October, and I don’t have the funds in my budget to fix them,” Handy said. “So what we’re going to do is perhaps ground those aircraft and just let them sit while we try to figure out what to do.”
The issue is corrosion of engine struts — the pylons connecting the KC-135E’s four Pratt & Whitney engines to its wings. Depot maintenance teams at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., have been repairing the problem, which affects all E-models, since 2001.
Handy said Air Force Materiel Command experts have told him they do not recommend flying the jets into fiscal 2005, which begins in October, unless they get the temporary repairs. Even that fix — about $12 million for all 30 jets — would keep the planes in the air for about five years, when a much more expensive permanent repair would be necessary, Handy said.
Those problems, Air Force officials say, are a big part of the reason they want to begin retiring KC-135Es, all of which belong to Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve units. But the Senate has had different ideas.
Last year, amid growing controversy over the Air Force’s plan to lease 100 Boeing airliners as replacements for the KC-135, senators succeeded in passing legislation that sharply cut the number of tankers the Air Force could retire this fiscal year.
The Senate version of the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2005 includes a ban on KC-135 retirements. The House version contains no such ban and would allow the service to go forward with 41 retirements beginning this fall, including the 30 planes not scheduled for engine strut repairs.
A conference committee is expected to begin work this fall on resolving differences between the two bills. If the Air Force can’t convince lawmakers to allow the retirements, it will have only itself to blame, said a vocal critic of the service’s tanker plans.
“They have cried wolf several times before, and so it’s going to be difficult for Congress to take them seriously this time,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, one of several watchdog groups that has attacked the Boeing tanker lease as wasteful.
“We all know these are old birds, and they need to be dealt with,” Ashdown said. “But to try and convince the public, and especially the Congress, through emergency anecdotes is probably going to fall on deaf ears. The service’s credibility on the Hill right now is low.”
Outside critics and lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have accused the Air Force of refusing to provide reliable data on just how much danger corrosion presents to the KC-135 fleet. In rejecting the tanker lease idea last year, lawmakers ordered the Pentagon to submit a detailed study of KC-135 corrosion problems.
The continuing controversy has delayed Air Force plans to begin shuffling its tanker fleet in anticipation of receiving new tankers to replace the Eisenhower-era KC-135s.
Air Mobility Command has said the retirements would have little impact on overall tanker operations because higher crew-to-aircraft ratios would allow planners to fly the remaining tankers more often. An AMC spokesman said in a written statement that the command’s planners call on fewer than 20 reserve-component tankers a day, and that reserve units could fill those requirements without the 30 aircraft.
A decision on how to proceed isn’t expected until at least late fall, when the Pentagon is expected to complete an analysis of alternatives ordered earlier this year by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. That order came after two Boeing executives, one a former Air Force acquisition official, were indicted. Darleen Druyun, the former Air Force official, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy for negotiating a job with Boeing without recusing herself from decisions involving the company.
Meanwhile, Air Force Reserve and National Guard tanker units, which own all the KC-135 E-models, continue to wait and hope that plans to retire their planes and replace them with more capable KC-135Rs will eventually take shape.
Issue Date: August 23, 2004
Ike-era aircraft corrosion cutting deep
By Vince Crawley
Times staff writer
Air Force Gen. John Handy, the man in charge of U.S. military transportation worldwide, goes around poking his fingers through old airplanes.
He’s able to do this because some Eisenhower-era aircraft have remained in service long beyond their designed lifespan — and corrosion is taking its toll. In fact, if they were cars, these aging war birds would qualify as antiques.
This situation affects the military’s ability to swiftly deploy, because it leaves leaders such as Handy with tough choices. They can pour more money into antique aircraft or spend tax dollars to buy modern transport jets that will remain safely aloft for decades.
The issue becomes even more pressing with the Pentagon’s initiative to shift tens of thousands of troops from home bases in Germany and South Korea to the United States — which would require even more airlift to deploy troops to future hot spots at a time when the military is already up to 20 percent short of the airlift capacity it needs.
In fact, Handy told defense writers in Washington at the end of July he didn’t have enough airplanes 18 months ago to deliver the troops requested by now-retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks for the invasion of Iraq.
“We could not take what the war fighter estimated he needed [and] had planned to need for the initiation of conflict,” said Handy, chief of the U.S. Transportation Command for the past three years.
“We could not deliver all of that in the sequence and timing that [Franks] needed it,” Handy said, describing the outcome of six secret planning conferences from October 2002 to January 2003 involving 300 to 350 people.
“So you negotiate,” Handy said, describing what he called one of the toughest aspects of his job.
“We negotiate the performance. We negotiate a contract that says you want it done next week, [but] I can get it perhaps in a week and a couple days or the week following. And we negotiate that.”
Tons of challenges
Napoleon’s army may have marched on its stomach, but today’s global forces often ride on jet fuel. And Handy calculates his movements not in shoe leather but in “ton-miles” per day.
For example, the most recent studies — which don’t take into account the pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — say he should be moving 54.5 million ton-miles per day. That roughly works out to 100 C-17 Globemasters hauling 50 tons apiece over 10,000 miles every day. In the real world, that load is spread over a variety of aircraft, including older C-5 Galaxies with larger payloads and a few aging C-141 Starlifters.
When the pace of today’s combat operations is factored in, analysts on Handy’s staff say he needs to be hauling 57 million to 60 million ton-miles per day. But his current air fleet can’t even handle the peacetime requirement of 54.5 million ton-miles.
“We’re about 10 million ton-miles per day short of that capability,” and the requirement is only expected to go up, Handy said.
“We cannot be a nation with our hands tied trying to get somewhere,” he said. “I don’t mean just in crisis resolution but in humanitarian [missions]. As a nation, we’re not going to turn our back on tragedy, earthquakes, typhoons.”
i hate reading this kind of stuff, what the heck are the top brass thinking, we need equipment now, before it is too late
Do many people drive vintage 1950s vehicles on a day-to-day basis? No, but the Air Force flies lots of aircraft that were designed with 1950s technology and were built in the 1960s - it's time for a new tanker! We are just lucky SAC had the power and money to buy 600 or so tankers back in the 50s and 60s - if we didn't have them we would have been unable to fight any war in the last 25 years. There is no other country in the world who can project power like the US and that is because we have an enormous tanker fleet to keep all our aircraft moving!
This is not a new problem. The AF was bitching about the tanker fleet during GW one. The fact they are STILL bitching about the SAME problem in 2004 tells me that leadership in ths area is lacking.
if i were the potus, heads would roll
i guess you guys havent notice the use of the new KC-10 tankers that have been around for a while... the 135s are being used mostly for aerovac...
the 135 is not that vital.
The newest KC-10 was accepted by the USAF in 1987.
There are only 59 KC-10's in the USAF inventory.
There are about 500-525 KC-135's still flying today as a mix of KC-135E, KC-135T and KC-135R aircraft.
The KC-135 is the backbone of the USAF refueling fleet.
Go away little troll.....
thats sucks, my first trip into the skys was in a 135. I got to watch as they refuled an F16 over the Wisconsin coastline when I was like 12 years old. I'll tell ya thats one way to get rid of a fear of heights. Just lay on down in the back of that bird and look down through the plexiglass at the world below........ ah memories......
AF needs to BUY, not LEASE a pile of new tankers...
They also need to replace the B-52 and F-15...