ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force will know by the end of this month whether it will kick-start a competition for aerial-refueling services, the head of Air Mobility Command told Defense News.

The service is in the final stages of a feasibility study that is evaluating whether the Air Force should buy commercial tanking services to support day-to-day needs for training and testing, said Gen. Maryanne Miller in an exclusive Feb. 28 interview.

“The interest is high on the commercial side. The commercial companies who are considering this are really waiting to see the feasibility study, which will be completed in March,” she said. “The interest is high on the outside. I talked to a few vendors yesterday that was asking me when the study is going to be done. We’re all waiting for that.”

The study will help the Air Force determine whether it is cost-effective to use commercial aerial-refueling services as well as help set parameters on how a contract could be structured. However, Miller said, industry-operated tankers would not conduct combat or other overseas operations, and instead would be used exclusively for tasks in the continental United States such as augmenting training or for test and evaluation missions that AMC does not always have the capacity to fill.

AMC believes its requirement will amount to about 6,000 hours per year, although the study could influence that number. Currently 14 companies have indicated interest in competing for the opportunity, she said.

If the service decides to move forward with a competition, it believes it will be able to move from a contract award to an initial operating capability using a few aircraft in about a year, Miller said.

“I love the idea. I hope the feasibility proves positive for us. That way we can get our requirements out there, we can start receiving proposals and then work that process as defined. We’re optimistic,” she said. “That would be exciting to relieve some of the tension and stress on our force.”

Getting Congress to agree to fund aerial-refueling services could be a hard sell, especially as the service considers paring back some of its own capacity. To free up funds for other priorities, the Air Force proposed retiring 16 KC-10s and 13 KC-135s in fiscal 2021. However, the idea has come under fire from U.S. Transportation Command — which has sought funds to buy back 23 of those tankers — as well as lawmakers who question whether the Air Force would be taking on too much near-term risk.

But Miller contended that having the flexibility of commercial aerial-refueling services could relieve pressures on the military’s own tankers, filling the gap for U.S. missions when there is high demand abroad.

“It really just relieves and fills that market of the service missions we just don’t get to today. Some of that is readiness-related,” she said. It also could have a positive impact for acquisition programs, as there will be more aerial-refueling resources available for test and evaluation, allowing test points to be completed more quickly and efficiently, and let the Air Force ensure it doesn’t wear out its legacy KC-135s too quickly.

“Having one more option is just really, really important.”