TRANSCOM head gives thumbs up for US Air Force to begin divesting KC-135s

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WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Transportation Command signaled Tuesday he is ready to support Air Force plans to start retiring some KC-135 aerial refueling tankers.

Last year, after the Air Force requested the authority to retire 13 KC-135s in fiscal 2021, TRANSCOM commander Gen. Stephen Lyons pushed back, arguing that retiring the legacy tankers without an operational KC-46 would exacerbate the existing tanker shortfall to high levels of risk.

But the outlook has changed for the better over the last year, Lyons told lawmakers during a hearing with the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee.

“I think we’re in a very good place, and I do think that it’s a good idea to allow the Air Force to retire the KC-135s that they’ve requested to retire,” he said.

Lyons pointed to “incredible work” done by the Air Force to come to an agreement with Boeing on a path forward for fixing the KC-46 — the service’s newest tanker, which was first delivered in 2019 and has been afflicted with numerous technical deficiencies.

In 2020, the service and Boeing solidified a plan for the company to develop a new remote vision system for the aircraft and begin integrating it in FY23. Until then, the company will roll out several interim fixes that will allow TRANSCOM to use the KC-46 for limited operations, Lyons said.

The service also made adjustments to its retirement schedule for the KC-10, retaining some that were planned for retirement, he said. “That combined has put us in a good position.”

In the FY21 defense authorization bill, Congress prohibited the Air Force from retiring any of its 398 KC-135s until after FY23. Instead, lawmakers stipulated that the service could retire 30 KC-10s during that time period, starting with six tankers in FY21.

However, Lyons’ statements could open the door for Congress to ease statutory restrictions on KC-135 divestments. That, in turn, could allow the Air Force to retire some of its KC-135 fleet as part of the FY22 budget, set to be released May 27.

In February, Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost announced that the Air Force would begin offering KC-46 aircraft to TRANSCOM for certain limited missions sets, such as taking part in exercises or escorting fighter jets traveling long distances either stateside or overseas. TRANSCOM has said such operations could start as early as June.

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