UPDATE: New tanker/cargo planes

Air Force general is willing to trade C-17s for tankers

Yesterday I noted that the Air Force wants to require the next generation of tanker aircraft to do a lot more than just provide in-flight refuelling. Here’s a story that sheds a little more light on the reason for this:

The new chief of the U.S. Transportation Command says that if he must choose between recommending more C-17 cargo planes or seeking new tanker planes that can also haul cargo, he’ll go with new tankers.

That’s an about-face from the stance of the previous chief, who wanted at least 222 of the airlifters. But if current plans stay in place, the Air Force will get only 180.

If the new tankers can also be used to haul cargo, suddenly the Air Force doesn’t need quite so many C-17s, the thinking goes. And if not going for extra C-17s means getting new tankers sooner, it’s worth it, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, head of TransCom, says. But only if the tankers can moonlight as cargo haulers as needed.

I’ve got to admit that I’m more than a bit skeptical of doing too much to “spiff up” tankers, but the capability to easily convert to cargo carrier is reasonable as long as it doesn’t drive the price up too much. It probably won’t.

One other thing I’d caution against is depending too much on too many multi-mission aircraft. Most of the time, this will be fine. But it’s the surges during events like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that would call for a lot of additional cargo carriers. Unfortunately, that’s also the very time that the in-air refuelling requirements are maxed out. So tankers wouldn’t be available to fly equipment across the water.

Quantity has a quality all its own. Like I’ve mentioned before, lack of quantity can sometimes have a lack of quality all its own, too.


  1. Since a KC-135 costs about 1/3 as much as a C-17, why not cut back 10 C-17s (to 212 instead of 222) and get 30 KC-135s in their place? As you’ve said, having seperate aircraft is the most flexible. It means extra maintenance, but extra capability. However, since KC-135s are effectively commercial aircraft, they’re designed for long structural lives and easy/cheap maintenance. You need more pilots with this approach, but I’m sure there are plenty of Air National Guard pilots who fly passenger planes as a day job and would be perfectly comfortable in a KC-135. it seems to me, you lose more than you win by trying to get one airframe to do multiple jobs in this case. If any development is required at all, that’s already money that could be spent instead on existing airframes to do the jobs seperately.

  2. OK, but can you buy new-build KC-135s? Can you buy them for 1/3 the price? Can you maintain them for 40 years for 1/3 the price?