Pegasus? It's no unicorn, either

One thing you certainly won’t hear any of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates call for is reducing defense spending. Most, if not all, of them in their speeches, policy positions, and debate appearances have called for not just an end to the “sequestration” of defense dollars but out-and-out increases. There probably won’t be any calls to make sure we’re spending the defense budget responsibly and effectively either. Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” is a common rallying cry, and once again, every dollar spent on defense must necessarily be a good one.


Of course, every dollar spent on defense isn’t a good one. The critic’s favorite defense spending punching bag right now is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Here at HotAir, Jazz Shaw has written about both the F-35’s poor flight test results and its poor performance vs. likely enemy aircraft and the massive cost overruns in the program.

The F-35 is so staggeringly profligate from a cost perspective that it makes wastes and abuses in other programs almost silly to look at, but if we are going to claim “fiscal conservatism”, we must.

There’s another aircraft in the procurement pipeline that’s also screwing us out of our tax dollars: Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus, the United States Air Force’s next-generation air-refueling tanker. The airplane is based on the company’s 767 commercial airliner and is expected to cost $188.2 million per aircraft, not including research and development costs, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in March of this year.

The current mainstay of the Air Force’s tanker fleet, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, entered service in 1957 and the last one entered service in 1965 – fifty years ago. Between the active service, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard, there are still 414 of them flying, and they’ve received incremental upgrades over the years to extend their service lives and make them more efficient. Some KC-135s are expected to serve until at least 2040, which means the final KC-135 pilot hasn’t been born yet!


During the 1980s, the Air Force purchased 60 McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) KC-10 Extender tankers, which were based on the DC-10 commercial airliner; 59 of them are still in service. In recent years, the Air Force has suggested early retirement of the KC-10 (and other aircraft) as a cost-savings measure to free up budget dollars for other aircraft programs like the KC-46 and F-35 as a lingering effect of sequestration. Barring their early retirement, the KC-10 should fly until the 2040s too.

The initial purchase of 179 KC-46 tankers is intended to replace the oldest KC-135 planes and enter into service beginning in 2017. At what we, the taxpayers, are allowing our Air Force pay for the planes, is it a good deal? Using the Air Force’s data (previously linked) and correcting for inflation to 2015, here’s how the three tankers compare:


The KC-46 has a per-plane cost 3.25 times greater than the inflation-corrected price of a KC-135. But it’s a much better plane, right? We’re going to get 3.25 times the value of a KC-135 out of the KC-46, right? The KC-46 Pegasus must be magical! If unicorns had wings, the Air Force has found one!

The primary measure of what an air refueling tanker can do is the amount of fuel it can carry. Comparing that:


Wait a second! The KC-46 can only carry six percent more fuel than a KC-135? What’s up with that? It’s a much larger plane too, by the way. But…there must be value somewhere! What about its efficiency? How does the KC-46 compare to a KC-135 or KC-10 on fuel burn?



So the KC-46 burns six percent more fuel and carries six percent more fuel than a KC-135. Call me crazy, but doesn’t that mean that there’s not one whit of difference between the performance of the KC-46 compared to that of the KC-135? I mentioned earlier that the KC-46 was a larger aircraft; it’s both longer and wider, meaning it has more internal volume than the KC-135. A secondary mission of tankers is carrying cargo. The KC-46 must be better, right?


Wonderful! The KC-46 can carry 22 percent less cargo than the plane it is replacing at 325 percent the cost! How’s that for government efficiency?

But wait, there’s more! The Air Force is also paying Boeing $6.7 billion for the KC-46’s development. Keep in mind that the 767 first went into commercial service in 1983 (32 years ago, 1,078 built and 765 in service through July, 2015), had its first military variants go into service in 2000, and already serves as a tanker aircraft sold direct by Boeing to the Italian Air Force and Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, entering service in 2009. One of the selling points for the KC-46 was that it would use “off the shelf” components like a modified KC-10 refueling boom and the “glass cockpit” and electronics from Boeing’s new 787 airliner. $6.7 billion for off-the-shelf? Really? The Export-Import Bank isn’t the only corporate welfare boondoggle that benefits Boeing.


Punchline: that GAO report from earlier in the year highlights the KC-46 program for being slightly under budget. I guess that’s something.

Now, I realize that maintaining a 50+ year-old aircraft like the KC-135 must be expensive on a year to year basis. Surely that skews the argument in favor of the KC-46 even after all of that, right?

In 2003, the Air Force spent (corrected to 2015 dollars) $4.79 million per KC-135 in maintenance. Assuming that amount is valid today, and it would increase by five percent per year, in 2037 the cumulative ongoing maintenance costs of a KC-135 for 22 years would be $184.4 million in today’s dollars – $3.8 million less than the cost of a new KC-46, which we’ve established is hardly a performance improvement. Shouldn’t the Air Force just bank the money it will spend on new planes for maintenance on what they’ve got? Seems way more cost-effective to me.

In 2037, the youngest KC-135 will be 72 years old. To get the same purchase value out of a KC-46 that enters service in 2017, that plane will have to fly until the year 2,251 – 234 years. Who wants to take that bet?

Wouldn’t it be great if our “fiscally conservative” Republican candidates – let’s throw in House and Senate members and aspirants too – actually asked questions like this or made this kind of value proposition?

But they won’t. Republicans are too hard-wired to reflexively support the protected class of the military and the defense establishment, completely ignoring that if they insisted on value for every defense dollar spent, they’d be able to pay our warriors more, have a larger and more effective military, and have plenty of money left over to care for all our veterans.


They’re in the tank, and we the taxpayers, get tanked.

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David Strom 10:00 AM | April 17, 2024