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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Keith Snyder: We need the KC-46 for the best Air Force on the planet

Aug. 7, 2021 Updated Wed., Aug. 11, 2021 at 5:45 p.m.

By Keith Snyder, Lt. Col. USAF (Retired)

I retired as a lieutenant colonel and command pilot with more than 2,000 hours in the B-52. I have approximately 300 hours behind tankers, primarily the KC-135. Boeing has always been a reliable and fantastic airplane manufacturer for the United States Air Force (USAF) as far back as World War II with the B-17. It provided the airplanes that fought and ultimately won the Cold War, with the B-52 and KC-135 providing one leg of America’s Strategic Triad. As a testament to the quality of these planes, both airplanes are still in use by the USAF today, even though they were built in the 1950s and ’60s.

With growing threats from near-peer competitors, specifically China and Russia, the Air Force recognizes the importance of investing in technology, innovation and agility. To address this growing threat, USAF Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown developed a strategy, “Accelerate Change or Lose,” to enhance programs that work, invest in emerging technology to prepare for the future, and phase out platforms that are no longer viable. In line with this vision, the Department of Defense invested in the KC-46 Pegasus, the most effective tanker in the military’s fleet that ensures the Air Force is positioned to effectively carry out one of its five core missions: global mobility.

As everyone knows, refueling is crucial for ensuring that the USAF can complete any mission worldwide in any conflict. Airplanes that can be refueled in-flight have longer operational reach and more time in the fight, thanks to tanker aircraft. As a former bomber pilot, I know firsthand how vital this support capability is. The Air Force has long recognized a need for a replacement of this strategic asset. Now we have a fantastic replacement in the KC-46.

A key advantage of the KC-46 is its capacity to “deliver greater operational readiness, flexibility and survivability …” according to Lt. General Richardson’s congressional testimony. One way it achieves this is by using existing infrastructure. The KC-46 optimizes the number of booms and fuel capacity available at home and remote locations. Due to its smart, consistent design, it is already compatible with Air Force resources, essentially eliminating the need for military construction. Not only does this avoid additional development costs and risk, it helps maintain uninterrupted delivery of aircraft to the warfighter.

The KC-46 is a derivative of the proven, sustainable 767 commercial aircraft. The plane is American made, which should always be the case with a strategic military airplane. With a U.S.-made aircraft, we have the flexibility to create variants that supplement cargo movement, troop relocation and other unforeseen mission requirements. Our national security should never be dependent on another nation when we want to build more planes or need modifications.

Another benefit to an American-made tanker is that it adds billions of dollars to the national economy while supporting hundreds of companies and tens of thousands of jobs in dozens of states. Here in Washington, where the KC-46 is manufactured, the program contributes more than $600 million annually in estimated economic impact and supports nearly 10,000 jobs and 80 Washington-based supplier companies. Fairchild Air Force Base outside of Spokane is also home to two refueling wings and a contender for the next home of the KC-46 tanker fleet. It is common sense to use a quality airplane with a proven, stable track record, built in the U.S. by American workers, so we can maintain control over the asset throughout the future and especially in wartime environments.

Lt. Gen. Richardson testified that “building the future tanker fleet remains one of the Air Force’s top acquisition priorities.” That should also be the goal of Washington lawmakers, not only because of the substantial economic benefits for the state and the nation, but also because of the importance the KC-46 will continue to play in theaters of war for the next generation.

Lieutenant Colonel Keith Snyder retired from the United States Air Force in 1995 with 3,300 flying hours and 21 years of military service. He started his military service flying B-52s and retired after serving as instructor pilot, flight commander, chief of bomber and tanker scheduling and later as chief of bomber and tanker assignments. He joined the Boeing Company in 1997 and served as a maintenance trainer and flight simulator instructor with the 737 classic and next generation airplanes. He retired from Boeing in 2018 and remains active in his community through his church, Kiwanis Club and Steilacoom Museum and Historical Association.

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