The general leading the U.S. Transportation Command said on Monday he needed the Air Force's much-delayed new tanker "yesterday," to make operations more efficient and save millions of gallons of fuel by reducing the load the airborne gas stations have to carry back to base.
In describing the vast daily operations necessary to support U.S. forces around the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Duncan McNabb said, "We pass more fuel than we carry cargo."
The huge C-17 and C-5 transports that currently haul much of the critical cargo from the United States to overseas bases usually must be refueled in flight at least once. Those refueling flights make up a large share of the 900 sorties McNabb said his command flies daily.
And virtually every combat sortie flown by U.S. and coalition fighters into Afghanistan and Iraq requires one or more airborne refuelings.
"Whenever you hear about a new tanker being my No. 1 priority, that's why," McNabb told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We're depending on this 50-year-old airplane" to meet that critical need, he said of the aging fleet of KC-135 tankers acquired from 1957 to 1965.
McNabb added that his concern is "not the airplanes we have today, it's 20 years from now," because it is "going to take a long time" to replace them.
"How many years can I wait? Not any. We needed the tanker yesterday," he said.
"We started working on this 10 years ago," McNabb added, although he noted that he does "understand all the process."
The general said the new tanker could save millions of gallons of fuel because it will be able to pass unused fuel to the tanker relieving it on station. The KC-135 cannot take on fuel in flight, so a tanker finishing its mission must carry all unused fuel back to base; the tanker then burns more fuel because it is carrying that additional weight.
"Those aircraft take fuel to the fight and bring it back," returning with an average of 30,000 pounds of fuel, McNabb said.
"If you can leave that fuel in the fight, you only carry it one time," he noted, estimating that doing so would reduce total fuel consumption for the airborne tanker mission by 20 percent to 25 percent.
"When you're talking 5 million pounds of fuel a day, 20 to 25 percent is a lot," the general said.
The Air Force's effort to replace the KC-135s has been marred by mistakes and scandal, with a 2001 attempt to lease 100 new tankers based on the Boeing 767 resulting in criminal convictions of a senior Air Force procurement official, Darleen Druyun, and a Boeing executive.
In 2004, European aerospace giant EADS won the subsequent competition with Boeing for the $35 billion contract to build 179 new tankers with its A330, but the decision was reversed after the Government Accountability Office upheld Boeing's protest.
The two corporations are now locked in another competition for the contract, with final offers due this week. The Air Force is expected to announce the contract award within the next several weeks.