Logistics: The KC-767 Saga Staggers On

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December25, 2006: While the U.S. Air Force continues trying to navigate the political and media obstacles of developing a new aerial refueling aircraft (to replace the 1960s vintage KC-135s), Italy and Japan are getting the new Boeing KC-767. The U.S. Air Force would like to have the KC-767, but politics, unfavorable numbers and bad behavior have gotten in the way.

Boeing developed the KC-767, at a cost of about a billion dollars, on its own. Boeing developed the original KC-135 tanker in the 1950s as well. All 732 KC-135s were built between 1956 and 1965. The Boeing 707 commercial transport is actually a civilian version of the original KC-135 (which itself evolved from the World War II B-29 heavy bomber.) Over the decades, the KC-135 fleet has undergone constant repair and reconstruction. New engines, and new structural components have been added, as older items wore out, or showed signs of wearing out.

Currently, some 40 percent of the KC-135s are out of action for maintenance problems. In theory, an aircraft can be continually rebuilt and kept in flying conditions. But the air force, and some commercial air lines, are finding that the maintenance problems multiply as the aircraft get older and, after a while, the downtime for maintenance is more trouble than it's worth. For example, the hundred oldest KC-135s spend an average of 80 days a year undergoing major repairs. The current proposal to buy new Boeing 767 aircraft, to replace the KC-135s, is in trouble because it will cost more money. Overhauling and maintaining the current KC-135 fleet would be about $10 billion cheaper than buying new 767s.

However, staying with the old aircraft would be pushing air force maintenance people into uncharted territory. That's already happening with the 90 B-52 bombers, which are as old as the KC-135s. The problem here is that the KC-135s (and B-52s) get the job done. And with the growing use of smart bombs, fewer bomber sorties are needed, meaning fewer KC-135 sorties are required to keep the bombers flying. There is risk in keeping 40 year old aircraft flying, but the safety record of the KC-135 and B-52 remains excellent. Newer isn't always better, but it is often more expensive.

The four engine KC-135 carries 90 tons of fuel and can transfer up to 68 tons. A B-52 carries over 140 tons of jet fuel, an F-15, over five tons. A KC-767 carries about as much fuel as the KC-135. The European aerial tanker, the A330, carries 50 percent more, and is being adopted by some countries. But for now, Japan and Italy are each buying four KC-767s, and U.S. Air Force orders are still on hold.


 


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