Lawmakers Keep Aerial Tankers on Life Support

The Eisenhower-era KC-135E refueling tanker is so old, the Air Force can't anticipate what will fail next, officials say.
The Eisenhower-era KC-135E refueling tanker is so old, the Air Force can't anticipate what will fail next, officials say. (Boeing)
By Walter Pincus
Monday, October 29, 2007

Once a week, at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, a crew chief on a tug tows one of a dozen or more aging KC-135E flying tankers a short distance just to keep the tires from going flat. Every 25 to 30 days, each of the planes is taxied to a special spot just to sit while its engines run so that the aircraft can be kept on a congressionally mandated standby status.

Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley bluntly told the House Armed Services Committee in a written statement last week that "the Eisenhower administration-era, KC-135Es, that have served our nation so well for 50 years, have exceeded available engineering data and we can no longer anticipate what element of the weapon system will fail next."

In its new budget request, the Air Force wants to retire 85 of the planes. It considers 52 of them "parked," which means pilots do not fly them anymore, and 21 of the aircraft are officially grounded because commanders believe they are unsafe.

Even those KC-135Es that do take off don't go far. "We can only fly the KC-135Es in the vicinity of the airfield," which means McGuire and Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where they are based, Moseley said. "We don't deploy them, we can't take them into theater, we can't lift the weight."

But despite those concerns, he said, "We are prohibited from retiring any . . . during fiscal 2008."

Those prohibitions come from Congress, and Moseley's plea last week was "for Congress to please give us the authority to manage our inventory so we don't waste crew chiefs and manpower and time and money on these airplanes."

But KC-135Es are not the only aircraft that Congress has prohibited the Air Force from retiring. Other language in law affects Lockheed's C-5A Galaxy giant transport, the C-130E Hercules light transport and other aircraft. Legislators are acting either to keep open Air Force bases in their districts or to continue contracts for the companies that make or rebuild the planes.

Congress in the fiscal 2004 budget prohibited the retirement of C-5As, which then numbered 111. Last year it legislated that the Air Force should try to update the older C-5As, but questions arose when the estimated cost surpassed $11 billion.

Meanwhile, Moseley said, "We can fly them [C-5As)] in America for outsized cargo locally. We would just not take them overseas." One result: When the Air Force needed to carry heavy cargo such as the new mine-resistant vehicle, known as MRAP, to Iraq, it rented Russian Antonov airplanes to help carry the load.

Language in the fiscal 2007 Defense Authorization Bill permitted retirement of 51 C-130Es. But, as Moseley and Wynne told the House committee last week, each that was retired had to be maintained "in a condition that allows recall of that aircraft to future service even though they may not be flyable." The Senate Armed Services Committee continued that provision in its version of the fiscal 2008 bill, saying those retired last year will be kept "in a condition that will permit recall of such aircraft to future service."

Moseley and Wynne pointed out to the House panel that C-130Es average "more than 43 years old," and "more than 20% of them are grounded or have flight restrictions preventing them from being useful to the Air Force." In addition, Moseley said the commander at Ramstein Air Base in Germany said a C-130E there "is so broke we can't operate it and we have four so restricted that we can't lift any cargo other than the crew."

Rep. H. James Saxton (R-N.J.), a senior member of the House Armed Services panel, has led the fight to do away with congressional restrictions. "We have those that would prohibit the Air Force here in Congress from doing anything about it by legislating that they must keep these old airplanes on the tarmac," he said last week.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them

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