Transportation Command head questions Air Force’s plan for refueler upgrades

Feb. 25 (UPI) — The head of U.S. Transportation Command has publicly challenged the Air Force’s plan to retire its older aerial refueling aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force intends to retire 16 KC-10A Extender and 13 KC-135R Stratotanker aerial refueling tankers in the coming fiscal year, and has asserted that it can do so without a major operational impact.

The projected replacement tanker, the KC-46A Pegasus, has struggled problems including a malfunctioning airlock, but did successfully complete its first flight around the world in December.

“We believe [the KC-10As and KC-135Rs] must be retained,” TRANSCOM’s Gen. Stephen Lyons told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Retiring the KC-10As and KC-135Rs before the KC-46As are truly capable of performing their key aerial refueling mission does create a “dip in operational capability.” He added that the Pegasuses were “not usable” in their present configuration for actual operational missions.

The Air Force has said it hopes Boeing, the manufacturer of the Pegasus, will devise a strategy for fixing the aircraft’s problems.

“We’re all clear eyed about the degradation to the joint force and the operational risk,” Lyons TRANSCOM’s Gen. Stephen Lyons told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

“To the senators’ questions, ‘What do we do?’ That’s the big question. Whether it becomes a mark in this budget or a reprogramming action, we’re attempting to retain those aircraft to mitigate that deep bathtub [in capability] that occurs with the KC-46 conversion.”

After being pressed for a plan to address the demand for mid-flight refueling, Lyons said he would return with a joint Air Force plan.

He also said the Air Force has already agreed to allow TRANSCOM to retain 28 legacy aircraft to mitigate the effects of conversion to the KC-46, and asked Congress for an additional $110 million to buy back 23 of the tankers targeted for cuts.

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