Military Aircraft: Information on Air Force Aerial Refueling Tankers

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-06-24.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                            United States General Accounting Office

GAO                         Testimony
                            Before the Subcommittee on Projection
                            Forces, Committee on Armed Services,
                            House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at 2:00 p.m. EDT
Tuesday, June 24, 2003      MILITARY AIRCRAFT
                            Information on Air Force
                            Aerial Refueling Tankers
                            Statement of Neal P. Curtin, Director
                            Defense Capabilities and Management

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                                                June 24, 2003

                                                MILITARY AIRCRAFT

                                                Information on Air Force Aerial Refueling
Highlights of GAO-03-938T, a testimony          Tankers
before the Subcommittee on Projection
Forces, Committee on Armed Services,
House of Representatives

Both the Congress and the                       The Air Force fleet of KC-135 aircraft (which, at 543 aircraft, represents the
Department of Defense are                       bulk of U.S. refueling capability) is an average of about 42 years in age. The
concerned about the age of the U.S.             Air Force projects that the KC-135 aircraft have between 36,000 and 39,000
aerial refueling fleet and its                  lifetime flying hours; according to the Air Force, only a few KC-135s are
potential impact on the military                projected to reach these limits before 2040, although at that time some of the
services’ ability to meet operational
requirements. Aerial refueling
                                                aircraft would be close to 80 years old. KC-135s are being flown an average
provides a key capability that is               of about 435 hours per year, on average, since September 2001. As the fleet
essential to the mobility of U.S.               has aged, the aircraft have become expensive to maintain, averaging about
forces. At present, the Air Force is            $4.6 million per year in total operations and support costs for the least
in the early stages of planning for             capable aircraft. Those costs include personnel, fuel, maintenance, and
modernizing its aging fleet.                    spare parts. KC-135s in the active duty forces are generally meeting the
                                                85 percent goal for mission capable rates; rates were lower for aircraft in the
                                                reserve forces, ranging from 70 to 78 percent. The Air Force Reserve and Air
In this testimony, GAO was asked                National Guard operate over half of the KC-135s.
to present its initial observations
on                                              In a 1996 report, GAO pointed out that the aging fleet of KC-135s would
(1) the status of the KC-135 fleet,
                                                eventually need replacement and that the Department of Defense needed to
    including its age, projected life           start planning for the recapitalization of the fleet. At that time, the
    limits, and mission capable                 Department responded to our report saying that the current fleet would meet
    rates (i.e., the percent of time            requirements “for the foreseeable future” and planned to begin procurement
    on average that the aircraft are            of new tankers around fiscal year 2013. In 2000, the Air Force conducted a
    available to perform their                  study called the Tanker Requirements Study-05, but it was never formally
    assigned mission); and                      completed. Therefore, DOD does not have a current, validated study on
                                                which to base the size and composition of either the current fleet or a future
(2) Air Force aerial refueling                  aerial refueling force. There is no effort currently under way to update the
    requirements.                               Air Force study or to conduct an analysis of alternatives for tanker
                                                modernization. The Air Force indicated recently that it plans to conduct a
                                                new Tanker Requirements Study in the fiscal year 2004-2006 time frame.

                                                KC-135 Aircraft Refueling an F-16


To view the full product, including the scope
and methodology, click on the link above.
For more information, contact Neal P. Curtin,
(202) 512-4914 or curtinn@gao.gov.
                       Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

                       I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the
                       important subject of aerial refueling for military aircraft. Aerial refueling
                       provides a key capability in enhancing the mobility of U.S. forces. The Air
                       Force is beginning planning for the modernization of its aging aircraft

                       As you requested, my statement focuses on the following issues:

                   •   KC-135 fleet status, including mission capable rates, age, and projected life
                       limits; and
                   •   Air Force aerial refueling requirements, including GAO’s observations and
                       the results of GAO’s 1996 Air Force air refueling study.

                       My statement is based on two published GAO reports1 and on our on-going
                       work for the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services
                       Committee. Because of the relatively short notice for the hearing, I have
                       kept my prepared statement short, focusing on some key issues that will
                       help update you with basic background information on the tanker fleet, as
                       your office had requested. As you know, DOD is in the final stages of
                       negotiating a lease agreement with Boeing for 100 new 767 aircraft that
                       will be modified for use as tanker aircraft and replace part of the current
                       fleet. Because details of that agreement have not been made public or
                       provided to us, I am not in a position today to discuss issues related to the

                       While numerous military aircraft provide refueling services, the bulk of
Status of Aerial       U.S. refueling capability lies in the Air Force fleet of 59 KC-10 and 543
Refueling Fleet        KC-135 aircraft. These are large, long-range aircraft that have counterparts
                       in the commercial airlines, but which have been modified to turn them into
                       tankers. The KC-10 is based on the DC-10 aircraft, and the KC-135 is
                       similar to the Boeing-707 airliner. The KC-10 aircraft are relatively young,
                       averaging about 20 years in age. Consequently, much of the focus on
                       modernization of the tanker fleet is centered on the KC-135s. These were
                       built in the 1950s and 1960s, and now average about 42 years in age.

                        U.S. General Accounting Office, Air Force Aircraft: Preliminary Information on Air
                       Force Tanker Leasing, GAO-02-724R (Washington, D.C.: May 15, 2002) and U.S. Combat
                       Airpower: Aging Refueling Aircraft Are Costly to Maintain and Operate,
                       GAO/NSIAD-96-160 (Washington, D.C.: August 8, 1996).

                       Page 1                                                                   GAO-03-938T
    Because of their large numbers, they are the mainstay of the refueling
    fleet, and successfully carrying out the refueling mission depends on the
    continued performance of the KC-135s. Thus, recapitalizing this fleet of
    KC-135s will be crucial to maintaining aerial refueling capability, and it
    will be a very expensive undertaking.

    Let me provide some additional background information on the KC-135

•   There are two basic versions of aircraft, designated the KC-135E and
    KC-135R. The R model aircraft have been re-fitted with modern engines
    and other upgrades that give them an advantage over the E models. The
    E model aircraft on average are about 2 years older than the R models, and
    the R models provide more than 20 percent greater refueling capacity per
•   The E models are located in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
    Active forces have only R models. Over half the KC-135 fleet is located in
    the reserve component.
•   While the KC-135 fleet averages over 40 years in age, the aircraft have
    relatively low levels of flying hours. The Air Force projects that E and
    R models have lifetime flying hours limits of 36,000 and 39,000 hours,
    respectively. According to the Air Force, only a few KC-135s would reach
    these limits before 2040, but at that time some of the aircraft would be
    about 80 years old.
•   Flying hours for the KC-135s averaged about 300 hours per year between
    1995 and September 2001. Since then, utilization is averaging about
    435 hours per year.
•   According to Air Force data, the KC-135 fleet had a total operation and
    support cost in fiscal year 2001 of about $2.2 billion. The older E model
    aircraft averaged total costs of about $4.6 million per aircraft, while the
    R models averaged about $3.7 million per aircraft. Those costs include
    personnel, fuel, maintenance, modifications, and spare parts.

    By most indications, the fleet has performed very well during the past few
    years of high operational tempo. Operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq,
    and here in the United States in support of Operation Noble Eagle were
    demanding, but the current fleet was able to meet the mission
    requirements. Approximately 150 KC-135s were deployed to the combat
    theater for Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, about 60 for Operation
    Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and about 150 for Operation Iraqi
    Freedom. Additional aircraft provided “air bridge” support for movement
    of fighter and transport aircraft to the combat theater, for some long-range
    bomber operations from the United States, and, at the same time, to help

    Page 2                                                          GAO-03-938T
                       maintain combat air patrols over major U.S. cities since September 11,

                       Data on the mission capable rates for the KC-135 fleet are shown in the
                       following table. Mission capable rates measure the percent of time on
                       average that the aircraft are available to perform their assigned mission.
                       The goal for KC-135s is an 85 percent rate; the table shows the number of
                       aircraft in the different components along with the mission capable rates
                       for the period October 2001 through March 2002.

                       Table 1. Mission Capable Rates for KC-135 Aircraft

                                                                                Mission capable rate
                        Component                          Number of aircraft              (percent)
                        Active                                           245                      85
                        Reserve R models                                  52                      78
                        National Guard R models                          115                      78
                        Reserve E models                                  16                      70
                        National Guard E models                          115                      76
                       Source: Air Force data.

                       For comparison purposes, the KC-10 fleet is entirely in the active
                       component, and the 59 KC-10s had an average mission capable rate during
                       the same period of 81.2 percent.

                       The rest of the DOD refueling fleet consists of Air Force HC- and MC-130
                       aircraft used by special operations forces, Marine Corps KC-130 aircraft,
                       and Navy F-18 and S-3 aircraft. However, the bulk of refueling for Marine
                       and Navy aircraft comes from the Air Force KC-10s and KC-135s. These
                       aircraft are capable of refueling Air Force and Navy/Marine aircraft, as
                       well as some allied aircraft, although there are differences in the way the
                       KC-10s and KC-135s are equipped to do this.

                       In our 1996 report, we pointed out that the aging fleet of KC-135s would
DOD’s Tanker           eventually need replacement and that DOD needed to start planning for
Requirements and       the recapitalization of the fleet. We recommended that DOD consider
                       looking at dual-use aircraft—an aircraft that could be used as a tanker or
GAO’s 1996 Air Force   as a cargo carrier, depending on mission requirements. The KC-10 fleet is
Refueling Study        actually used in this way now. In response to our recommendation, DOD
                       agreed that it would consider such an option when it did a comprehensive
                       analysis of tanker requirements and alternatives. However, the department
                       also stated that the current fleet would meet requirements for “the

                       Page 3                                                           GAO-03-938T
           foreseeable future.” Moreover, in its response to our report, DOD stated
           that “While the KC-135 is an average of 35 years old, its airframe hours and
           cycles are relatively low. With proper maintenance and upgrades, we
           believe the aircraft may be sustainable for another 35 years.” At the time of
           our report, the Air Force had deferred the start of KC-135 replacement
           from fiscal year 2007 to 2013. In discussions with the Air Force last year,
           officials indicated that they had moved up that timetable to fiscal year

           DOD does not have a current, validated study on which to base the size
           and composition of either the current fleet or a future aerial refueling
           force. An Air Force study called Tanker Requirements Study-05 (TRS-05)
           was conducted in 2000, but it was never formally completed nor were its
           preliminary results released. Drafts of the study identified a shortfall in
           tanker capability, but the study was based on the old strategy of
           supporting two major theater wars. There is no effort under way that we
           know of to update the TRS-05 study and release it or to conduct an
           analysis of alternatives for tanker modernization. The Air Force indicated
           recently that it planned to conduct a new Tanker Requirements Study in
           the fiscal year 2004-2006 time frame.

           Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be happy to
           respond to any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee may
           have at this time.

           Contacts and Acknowledgments
           For future contacts regarding this testimony, please contact me at (202)
           512-4914 or Brian Lepore at (202) 512-4523. Individuals making key
           contributions to this testimony included Joseph J. Faley, Kenneth W.
           Newell, Tim F. Stone, and Susan K. Woodward.

           Page 4                                                          GAO-03-938T
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