WASHINGTON – The KC-46A Pegasus tanker is one of the three major recapitalization priorities for the Air Force. But with Congress moving to block retirement of older tankers, the Pegasus could find itself short on maintainers as it attempts to come online.
The core of the issue begins with the battle between the Air Force and Congress over the A-10 close-air support plane, and the future of its maintainers. The service is arguing that the Warthog needs to be retired quickly in order to move those maintainers over to the F-35 and have them ready to go for the joint strike fighter's operational date of August 2016.
Those against retiring the A-10 argue this is just a political stunt by the Air Force to try to galvanize support to retire the Warthog and highlight alternatives such as using contractors or reserve units. But it's not just a matter of bodies, the service says, highlighting the lead time needed to train a maintainer in handling the complicated stealth fighter and the experience levels required.
Each side claims its own facts, but the basic logic of the service boils down to this: If Plane X cannot be retired, then its replacement, Plane Y, cannot get the maintainers it needs to become operational. If that logic is right, then the maintainers problem won't be limited to the A-10 and F-35.
Take, for example, the KC-46A. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in fiscal 2016, and to prepare, the service will need to begin moving maintainers from the KC-10 relatively soon to begin retraining for the new tanker.
One Air Force official with knowledge of the maintenance plan said the maintainer supply right now is fine, as long as it can draw on the existing tanker maintainer pool of the KC-10 and KC-135.
"You are trying to balance the force and in some cases there's just not enough [bodies] to go around," the official said. "In this case, there aren't any real alternatives."
But with the compromise National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) released last week, Senate and House negotiators put in language prohibiting any fiscal 2015 funds being used to "transfer, divest or prepare to divest any KC-10 aircraft" until 60 days after the defense secretary submits a series of cost-benefit analyses.
Those analyses include a five-year force structure plan for the tanker fleet, a breakdown of current and future air refueling and cargo transportation requirements, and a risk assessment and mitigation strategy.
Congress pre-emptively putting in language making any early retirement of the KC-10 an issue is a bad sign for the Air Force, said Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute.
She also points out that the makeup of Congress — controlled by Republicans hostile to the sitting president, many of whom have been in Congress less than a decade and who are used to telling the Pentagon "no" — makes starting retirement of any airplanes a challenge.
"They are not going to give an early tanker retirement in the next two years of this presidency," she said. "It doesn't matter who is secretary, it doesn't matter the compelling case."
The Air Force official downplayed concerns, noting that if the KC-10 cannot be retired, the service could instead move to retire the KC-135 and draw its maintainers for the Pegasus from there.
But what if Congress then moves to block retiring the KC-135 — a plane that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the incoming Senate Armed Service Committee chairman, has shown significant interest about in the past?
"Then," the official conceded, "we would run into problems."
The inability to retire older systems and make way for newer ones is a concern shared by Gen. Robin Rand, the head of Air Education and Training Command, who oversees the training of the maintenance corps.
"If we were not able to replace anything, I would submit that in my opinion, we absolutely might have a problem," he told Defense News in November. "The theory is that we are bringing these new systems on with the idea that they are replacing existing systems, legacy systems, and that we will be able to harvest resources, personnel resources, from those legacy systems."
Asked specifically about whether a hold on KC-10 retirements would affect the KC-46 maintainer crews being ready in time, Rand said "potentially."
"I am not saying it will," he added. "I think it is [a] potential, something we've probably got to be looking at."
Eaglen warned that the service needs to address the situation soon, because budget planners are already turning their heads to fiscal 2017.
"There is already a maintainer shortage now, and there is the train-up time," she said. "They are about to start second quarter FY15, and about to start building the FY17 budget, so the Air Force will have to start addressing this tanker maintainer challenge right now."
It's not just a situation constrained to the tankers. The same pattern could be repeated in a few years as the Long Range Strike-Bomber program gets underway if, for instance, members of Congress decide they are against retiring the B-52 or B-1 bomber fleets while the new bomber is being spun up.
Complicating matters is ongoing operations against the Islamic State fighter in Iraq and Syria. Many of the aircraft facing retirement are being used in those operations. Assuming the operations last for years, as top White House and Pentagon officials have suggested, drawing down the aircraft could prove nearly impossible.
"As long as you can convert and make those transitions, the numbers work out," the official said. "So KC-10 or KC-135 to KC-46, that works. If it's B-1 or B-52 to LRS-B, that works. If it's A-10 or F-16 to F-35, it works."
One thing that may change the calculus is how the service handles the basing for these aircraft.
"If those conversions occur at existing bases, I think the political fallout is less likely," the official said. "If those conversions occur and there are winners and losers, you'll see more challenges to those decisions. That's the politics of all of this."
Eaglen warned the basing arguments may still fall on deaf ears in Congress, and pointed out that the A-10 divestment plan would give the majority of bases alternatives such as the F-16. It hasn't worked then, and it may not work now, she said.
"The next Congress is going to be emboldened to say 'no' more often to the Pentagon because of the pattern of behavior among members who have only been elected the last six years," she said. "You have a generation of members on defense committees who are confident that they don't have to come up with alternatives, including money and offsets.
"They can just say 'no' and let it be someone else's problem," she added. "What does Congress do best? They kick the issue to the right." ■