Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

X = 17

The Air Force badly wants new aerial refueling planes. So badly, in fact, that it's ending its C-17 buy after just 180 planes (instead of the 220 needed) just to pay for the new tankers.

The KC-X competition will determine who builds the next tanker (or tankers, if the buy is split between Boeing & Airbus.) The specifications have been written broadly, and the contractors are scratching their heads. Does the AF want a large plane like the KC-10 to carry a lot of fuel? Does it want several smaller planes like the 767 and A330 to generate a lot of sorties? Does it want a small plane like the KC-130 or 737 to fly from austere runways?

In this environment, the best solution is the overlooked C-17. Specifically, a KC-17 variant with a refueling boom (mounted on an interchangeable cargo door, or above the door.) The KC-17 would be nearly as big as the KC-10, but can still take off from austere airstrips (while the KC-130 can also do this, I think it's absurd to think that a 737 would even be considered for this requirement.)

The best part is that the KC-17 can also fill the shortfall in cargo aircraft numbers if necessary. If the boom is mounted out of the way of the cargo door, loading cargo will be easy. If it has to be mounted on the door, the door could easily be removed. In either case, the KC-17 kills two birds with one stone.

The KC-135E was a penny-wise and pound-foolish upgrade, using old TF33 engines from retired 707's to provide a quick fix for the KC-135A "water wagons." The F108 engine that came around shortly thereafter and made its way into the KC-135R has proven to be a good investment. The F108 allows the KC-135R to fly much faster and more reliably than the KC-135E. It's time for the KC-135E to fly into the sunset. And the KC-17 represents the best replacement.