How urgent is the KC-135 replacement?

My colleague (and competitor) Amy Butler today quotes Northrop Grumman executive Paul Meyer, vice president of Northrop Grumman Air Mobility Systems, about the urgency of the KC-135 replacement. He says:

“The Air Force has made it abundantly clear they need to modernize the aging KC-135 fleet as quickly as possible.”

I’ve always accepted the air force’s KC-135 replacement urgency at face value. After all, some of these tankers date back to the early 1960s. How much life could they possibly have left?

But John Young, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, surprised me in his testimony last month. Here’s what he said:

Thetruth is, KC-135s currently have, on average, 17,000 hours and theyhave a structural life of 36,000 to 39,000 hours. Those airplanes haveplenty of life. We could continue with those airplanes structurally.Those airplanes were designed in a time where we developed more robuststructures. Today’s airplanes have less robust structures. I think itremains to be seen whether [newer] planes can serve for 25, 40 or 50years.

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5 Responses to How urgent is the KC-135 replacement?

  1. eg 6 August, 2008 at 7:24 pm #

    Lets see, I have:
    1. TF33 engines that have been rebuilt umpteen million times probably with reworked rather then new parts in the hot section.
    2. Other parts that have been reworked using reworked parts.
    Sure the airframe might have good time left, and it might not even have a lot of corrosion on it.

    But I would bet the engines don’t make 400 hours and the maintenance crews are getting dogged-out trying to make sorties. Which begs the question; what is the FMC rate? And if it is high, what kind of personnel problems are the commands having as far as off-duty incidents and retention rates?

  2. RobH 6 August, 2008 at 7:41 pm #

    I’ve read about the brilliance of Mr. Young, but I have to wonder: would he send his wife and kids to California in a ’57 Chevy? As cool as that would be, I think he’d rather let ‘em take the Camry. Today’s tankers are typically in battlespaces halfway around the world, not orbiting the Canadian border. As rugged as old Boeings are, they’re maintenance-intensive (like an old Chevy, one might say) and If you’re going to demand that kind of endurance from today’s warfighter, why hinder them with yesterday’s fatigue-inducing aircraft? And as for robust structures, let’s bet on which lasts longer: the fatigue-test Dreamliner or Mr. Young’s accountant-like naivete.

  3. rapier 6 August, 2008 at 7:57 pm #

    If the statement of undersecretary Young is right, I am asking:
    How many Stratotankers are TF-33 engined today and how many have been F-108 (military CFM-56) re-engined ?
    And ….. might the older aircraft be re-engined now ?

  4. ELP 7 August, 2008 at 10:29 am #

    It is unfortunate that Young’s skillsets on air power issues are weak. He has also stated that the F-35 is affordable. With less than 1% of the flight testing done, this is yet to be proven.

    The story at the KC-135 depot at Tinker is very different. While they have shown increased efficientcy in the KC-135 PDM ( Periodic Depot Maintenance ) line.(LEAN etc).. the kinds of airframe life problems that are popping up there are more and more unique by airframe hull including the fact that on the average, airframes are spending more time in PDM due to age discovery/fix. This also pushes the expense up.

    Then of course we thought we knew everything about F-15 PDM work and last year a whole batch of them were grounded due to airframe discovery via the results of a class A mishap.. When that happens to the KC-135 we will be hurting with a crippled air bridge.

    The KC-135 needs to be retired while we still have a reasonable handle on it.

  5. EricM 9 August, 2008 at 4:53 pm #

    The KC-135E is the least capable variant and the only one left with the old TF33 engines. Only nine of them are still flying with another 34 in service but not used, according to the Airforce Magazine (

    The E-model shall be retired when the KC-X deal is decided definitely. The remaining “modern” KC-135R and -T are only a few years younger, the youngest about 44 years. (Ok, flying hours are more important than mere age. But the Stratotanker has been in heavy use for many years now, heavier than expected in the nineties) The point is: If the KC-X/Y/Z program is executed as planned the last KC-135 to be retired will be at least 80 years old. There is just no experience with such old airframes in service. So the problems to come concerning maintenance and service life may be quite surprising. I like the saying from now former Chief of the Air Force, Gen. T. Michael Moseley: The mother of the last KC-135 pilot has not yet been born.

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