The U.S. continues to play a crucial supporting role for French air operations against al Qaeda forces in Mali. France lacks the aerial tankers needed to keep enough of its warplanes in the air over Mali. American KC-135 aerial tankers have so far (since last January) delivered over 3,000 tons of fuel to French warplanes, allowing for these aircraft to spend hours more in the air, waiting for a request from troops below for a smart bomb or missile. The American KC-135s are operating out of a base in Spain.
French warplanes are delivering smart bombs to their troops below, or African peacekeepers that have French air controllers with them. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the GPS or laser guided bombs were a decisive weapon against the fanatical Islamic terrorists, especially when these guys are trapped and willing to die in a hail of gunfire. But that is dangerous for the attackers and it’s easier to blow the fanatics up with a smart bomb or missile.
Despite having 14 KC-135 tankers of their own, these are, like the 400 the U.S. Air Force has, elderly and often out-of-service. France has a dozen new A330 tankers on order. But they need more tankers than they possess to sustain the vital air operations over Mali, so they called in their ally the United States. Even the twelve new A330s would not have been adequate to sustain the current French effort over Mali. Most of the French warplanes fly in from France, largely because the fuel supplies and maintenance facilities in Mali are limited. For decades its been common for America’s European allies to depend on U.S. aerial tankers in situations like this.
While a quarter of the American tanker aircraft are sidelined because of age and maintenance needs, there are enough to sustain the French operations. As these tankers are also used for many training exercises and the movement of air cargo, it was not easy for the air force to collect enough for the Mali operations. But the U.S. has so many tankers that it had the flexibility to shuffle them around to keep everyone in the air. That may not be the case in the future.
The elderly KC-135s are difficult to keep running and many of them still have to serve another twenty years until they can be completely replaced by the new KC-46A. Operating aircraft this old is unexplored territory because this is the first time in history that so many large, and fast, aircraft have gone on flying for so long. Commercial freighter aircraft fly more frequently than their military counterparts, putting more strain on them and forcing their operators to develop new maintenance techniques the air force can use. The KC-135s are the oldest transports the air force is still using, and keeping them working is proving to be an expensive and challenging effort.
The basic problem is that, despite constant maintenance and careful monitoring, unexpected failures still occur with elderly aircraft. Nothing that is cause for alarm but it is more expensive to keep them flying and problems are more difficult to predict. Older aircraft are grounded if any unexpected failure seems imminent. While that just about eliminates these aircraft having fatal failures while in the air, it also makes older aircraft less available for service. For a long time it was considered more cost effective to keep the old birds flying than to buy new ones. Eventually advanced age made replacement a necessity, not an option.
After over a decade of effort, the U.S. Air Force finally managed to select a replacement in 2011. The air force procurement process has been cursed with corruption, incompetence, meddling politicians, and litigious suppliers, all combining to prevent the acquisition of a new tanker. The air force might order over a hundred KC-46As but the exact number depends on what kind of future aircraft the air force will be using. If there are a lot of unmanned aircraft (UAVs), fewer tankers will be needed (because UAVs are smaller and need less fuel).
The KC-46A is based on the Boeing 767-200 airliner. The 767 has been in service since 1982, and over 800 have been manufactured so far. Boeing also developed the original KC-135 tanker in the 1950s, and has since built over 2,000 of these. The Boeing entry was competing with the A330 the French, and several other air forces, are buying. Had Boeing not been the home team, the air force may well have selected the A330.
The KC-46A was selected partly because it is about the same size as the KC-135 (wingspan is 50.3 meters/156 feet, 6.8 percent larger than the KC-135). Thus the new tanker can use the same basing and repair facilities as the 135. The KC-46A can carry up to 94 tons of fuel (compared to 90 tons for KC-135). It can also carry up to 114 passengers or 18 cargo pallets or 58 patients (24 on litters).