WASHINGTON – After more than 50 years as the military’s gas station in the sky – and a decade of attempts to replace it – the KC-135 is showing its age.
At a base outside the nation’s capital, the cockpit of a 1957 aerial refueling plane still has a quarter-sized hole in the ceiling which crews once used to navigate by the stars. Pilot hands have worn away much of the black paint from the yokes used to guide the jet. Large patches of silver tape hold up tubing in the cabin. And the oldest member of the crew on a recent training mission was still seven years younger than the plane.
Despite its age, the Air Force still needs the KC-135 for a critical mission: keeping its fighter jets and other planes flying as far and long as possible.
The tanker planes were built in the late 1950s and early ’60s and were supposed to fly for 20 years. The failure to replace the fleet of 450 planes reveals much of what’s wrong with how the military buys weapons. Bitter competition between defense contractors, heavy pressure by members of Congress eager to bring jobs to their districts, and bungling by the military have caused the delay. So, while the KC-135 has gotten by with a patchwork of new engines and navigation systems, the cost of keeping it flying is growing by the year. And the potential price tag for a fleet of replacements is closing in on $100 billion.
“The tanker program is a case study on how inefficient our acquisitions system is,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Group. Consider:
The Navy is buying destroyers it doesn’t want because of pressure from Congress to keep the program alive. The Army’s modernization plan is well over budget at $159 billion, a figure that could grow even as critics say much of its high-tech gear remains unproven. Delays and production problems mean the F-35 fighter program could cost $1 trillion to buy and maintain.
“The current acquisition process is broken,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said during a recent congressional hearing.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to release details of his budget today, including cuts for some of the Pentagon’s biggest over-budget weapons programs.
As for the tanker program, Gates plans to try again this spring to award a new contract. But the hurdles, including a feud between rival bidders Boeing Co., the maker of the KC-135, and Northrop Corp., still remain. Even if the Pentagon finally picks a winner, it will be years before new planes roll off the assembly line.
That means the KC-135 will test the limits of how long the Air Force can keep a plane flying. Some of the tankers may eventually hit 80 years old. The Air Force fears the geriatric planes may eventually spend more time in the shop than gassing up warplanes in the sky.
“At some point, this airplane won’t be able to do its mission as effectively as it should,” said pilot Lt. Col. Robert Blake, an Air Force reservist who flies with the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The cost of carrying out that mission is growing. The Pentagon shifted about $3 billion meant for the new tanker to fixing the KC-135, saying the old plane is still reliable. But an Air Force study from earlier this decade estimated that total upkeep costs for the fleet would grow about 50 percent by 2040, to $3 billion from $2.1 billion in 2002. At that rate, repair costs would come close to the potential $100 billion price for replacing them all. And Air Force leaders say it is better to buy a new tanker than to keep pouring money into a 50-year-old plane that keeps getting older.
“It is like trying to equip your ’57 Chevy with modern equipment. It’s expensive,” said Gen. Arthur Lichte, head of the Air Force mobility command that includes the KC-135s.
Each year, about 75 planes head into the shop at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma for big repairs that cost about $7 million per plane. That’s roughly a half billion dollars annually, which doesn’t include regular repairs made daily by mechanics at the bases where KC-135s are stationed.
But some major overhauls are coming. Around 2018, many planes will need new wiring and a gray metal skin.
The overhauls have kept a critical military link in the air. From the 200,000 pounds of jet fuel that can be stored in their wings and body, KC-135s refuel fighter jets. They allowed bombers to strike Baghdad after taking off from Missouri, a nearly 7,000-mile flight. And they gas up medical planes carrying wounded troops to U.S. hospitals and cargo planes carrying food to disaster areas.
Both Boeing and Northrop propose a bigger plane that can carry more fuel. Both would replace the KC-135’s more antiquated features such as the guidance system that makes the jet handle like a dump truck compared to modern planes. The plan is to phase out the KC-135 gradually once a new tanker is chosen.
The contractors and their allies in Congress disagree over which plane is better. That animosity contributed to delays and three failed attempts over nearly a decade to award the $35 billion contract for the first 179 jets. In between, a top Pentagon official went to jail for illegal attempts to favor Boeing. The contract was awarded to Northrop but Boeing successfully challenged the decision. And the government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, found the Air Force botched the process. In the fall, Gates postponed a new competition until the new president took office.
Even if a winner is picked this year, it would still take several years for the replacement plane to hit the runway. And only about 20 could be made annually, stretching out the fleet’s replacement to 25 years from today.
Some members of Congress have proposed buying planes from both companies to speed up the pace of production, but Gates has not backed that plan.
Meanwhile, the relics of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras keep flying.
“It is like the Social Security problem: people don’t pay attention to it until it starts eating the budget. It is easily put aside, easily put off, but eventually it comes back to bite you,” said Richard Aboulafia, a TealGroup aerospace analyst.