The US Air Force studies the sub-contracting of Air Refueling

As reported by Valerie Insinna of DefenseNews and Brian W. Everstine of AirForceMagazine, the command of theU.S. Air Force dedicated to transport and resupply operations (Air Mobility Command) recently met with a dozen private companies at the Scott Hill base. The stated goal: to discuss the possibilities of subcontract part of the operations of in-flight refueling of Air Mobility Command. This open discussion between the American Air Force and its private partners would allow the USAF to have an initial idea of ​​the private means available and the time frame required to implement such a capability. 

For around fifteen years, Western armed forces have increasingly used private companies as part of their training or logistical transport missions. And in-flight refueling has not escaped this trend, even if the low availability of refueling tankers on the private market has considerably slowed down the ambitions of market players, notably the American company Omega Air Refueling. Until now operating two Boeing KC-707s and one MDD KDC-10, the company mainly acts in support of training operations de l 'US Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, which do not have their own heavy refueling vessels. 

Omega air refueling tanker Defense Analysis | Tanker Aircraft | Defense Contracts and Calls for Tenders
One of Omega Air Refueling's KDC-10s refueling an F-35

However, Omega Air Refueling announced at the end of November having received a second second-hand KDC-10, previously operated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force. And, unlike the company's three other tankers, this latest KDC-10 is equipped with the Flying Boom rigid boom system compatible with the refueling of USAF aircraft. Omega Air does not hide its ambitions in this area, and could be one of the first private contractors for the USAF on this type of mission. Like the missions already carried out by Omega Air for the benefit of the US Navy and Marines, the new KDC-10 could support the training, testing or qualification activities of the US Air Force. 

For the USAF, the challenges of subcontracting are therefore multiple. On the one hand, by using private companies for supply above American soil, it frees its own refueling vessels and optimizes their external deployment. On the other hand, subcontracting could make it possible to marginally reduce the cost in-flight refueling for the USAF. However, this relies on the ability for private operators to contain their operating costs and, very often, to make their aircraft profitable through additional transport activities, for example. 

In all cases, the USAF's information approach to private companies demonstrates, once again, the enormous pressure placed on the air refueling operations of theAir mobility command. Delays, additional costs and technical setbacks accumulate in fact on the KC-46 program, which aims to replace the oldest KC-135s, which are running out of steam. In such a context, to avoid having to manage a triple logistics chain, the USAF could prematurely withdraw its sixty KC-10 Extenders, which nevertheless have carrying capacities much greater than those of the KC-135 or the KC. -46.

KC 46 F 35 USAF Defense Analyzes | Tanker Aircraft | Defense Contracts and Calls for Tenders
The Boeing KC-46 suffered numerous technical setbacks

If the details of the December 17 meeting between the Air Mobility Command and the fourteen private companies invited have not been revealed, we can nevertheless imagine that the private in-flight refueling market is moving towards three main solutions:

  • Firstly, it is the market for second-hand devices which could constitute the first concrete refueling capabilities serving the air forces. The use of military aircraft by private operators is no longer new, with ATAC and Draken providing combat and advanced training aircraft for frontline missions for the benefit of American forces. This practice could in the future be generalized to supply operations, through the acquisition by various private companies of KC 10 and some KC 135 of the USAF, or even C-135FR French, after their withdrawal from service. Such devices could interest a company like Omega Air, but also provide faceplate specialists with new business opportunities. 
  • Secondly, private operators could implement new tanker aircraft with performances aligned with the aircraft currently being received by the USAF and allied air forces. Following the model of what was done in the United Kingdom with the A330 MRTT Voyager KC2 and KC3, this could take the form of a public-private partnership, entrusting civil operators with the responsibility of operating part of the USAF KC-46 fleet. Other manufacturers could, however, offer a pay-for-service or fixed-price system. This is particularly the case of Lockheed-Martin and Airbus, which agreed last year to offer the American forces the services of the A330 MRTT, which failed in 2011 against the Boeing 767/KC-46 despite its refueling capabilities. superior.
  • Finally, as long as the subcontracting of refueling activities is effectively supported in the long term by the Air Mobility Command, the private companies offering their services could gradually implement new, unique ways dedicated to very specific missions. It could be, as proposed by the Israeli industrialist IAI,equip civil devices Boeing 737, Gulfstream or Global Express type medians of Flying Boom equipment. Such aircraft, operated by service providers, would then complement current fleets where KC-135s and KC-46s would not prove essential, particularly for pilot refueling training[efn_note]The new T-7 Red Hawk should all be equipped with a refueling receptacle in flight[/efn_note], test flights, support for light detachments on rudimentary advanced bases or even ferry flights.
An Air Force A330 MRTT accompanied by a Rafale B of a mirage 2000 5 and a mirage 2000D Defense analyzes | Tanker Aircraft | Defense Contracts and Calls for Tenders
The use of private providers could offer a second chance to the A330 MRTT in the United States

Thus, after having found the former Air Force Mirage F1s in the hands of private American companies, it could be the turn of our venerable C-135FRs to experience a second life across the Atlantic. Although the airframes of the aircraft are old, they still have respectable flight potential, these aircraft having been designed to commercial aviation standards, which require much more flight hours than military operations.

And, since the French forces already call on private companies to provide plastering or logistical transport solutions, nothing prevents us from imagining that our former supply tankers, or those of our allies, could come support our new fleet in the future of A330 MRTT Phénix. Because if the latter brings new life to our external deployments, it risks remain insufficient to cover all French supply needs if the current pace operations is maintained over time.

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