Until 1991, the longest bombing missions ever flown were the 1982 Operation Black Buck raids against Argentinian invasion forces in the Falkland Islands by RAF Vulcans flying out of Ascension Island. RAF Ascension, the closest British base to the Falklands, was almost 3,400 miles away, and the occupiers were confident that they were safe from air attack. So there was quite a lot of alarm in the early morning of 1 May, when a huge metal triangle came screaming in out of a dark sky and dumped 21,000 pounds of bombs on Port Stanley airfield.
The real story of the Black Buck raids isn’t about bombers, though. Each mission put a single bomber over the target, but needed no less than eleven tankers and seven refuelings to get it there. When the USAF broke Black Buck’s distance record during the first Gulf War, hitting targets in the Middle East with B-52s flying from the continental USA, those missions relied on tankers too – the bombers were refueled on both legs of the flight by tankers flying out of bases in Europe.
If you want to cripple a modern air force, don’t bother trying to shoot down its combat aircrafts. They’re agile and heavily armed – tough targets. Instead just go for the lumbering tankers. Blow those up on the ground by paying a local terrorist group to launch a few RPGs over the airbase perimeter fence, and you instantly slash the reach and combat capability of the force.
Of course modern air forces know that, so they protect their tankers carefully. They’re high value assets; in the air they’re escorted, and on the ground elaborate security measures keep potential hostiles out of weapon range. Unfortunately, it’s proving tanker fleets against the ballooning cost of the planes themselves.
The USAF’s tanker fleet is getting old. The most common type right now is the KC-135, a tanker variant of the ancient Boeing 707 airliner that’s been in service since 1957. The Air Force operates about 400 of these, plus 59 KC-10 Extenders. The KC-10 is a larger and newer aircraft – but not that much newer; they’ve been in service for over 35 years themselves. Now the USAF is planning to take on about 100 new KC-46 tankers to replace the oldest KC-135s, and it’s likely that eventually more KC-46s will take over from the rest of the existing fleet.
Or maybe it isn’t. The costs of the KC-46 program are spiraling – not as badly as the F-35, but still into sums big enough that even the Pentagon has to take notice. A series of technical issues with the refueling gear has helped push the program $2.3 billion over budget. That’s not going to affect the initial batch of 100; the Air Force negotiated a fixed-price contract with Boeing, who make the 767-based planes and will lease them to the USAF. It’s going to be an issue if more are ordered, though, and at some point that’s going to have to happen.
The KC-135s won’t keep flying forever, and the only alternatives to the KC-46 are the Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport developed for the RAF – which has its own technical and budget issues – or another new design. Either option would be even more expensive than the KC-46, so the most likely result is a smaller fleet. That’s going to reduce flexibility and make the tanker force less resilient if an enemy targets it. Unless the KC-46 budget can be brought back under control the USAF is going to see its global reach reduced over the next couple of decades.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.