Logistics: Outsourcing Aerial Refueling

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June 8, 2007: The U.S. Air Force has, for decades, maintained hundreds of KC-135 aerial tankers to refuel its bombers and fighter bombers. Currently, it costs the air force about $17.50 per gallon to deliver this fuel in the air. The U.S. Navy, which has much more modest aerial refueling needs, has been outsourcing much of this work. The navy also has some smaller aerial tankers of its own, but has used a civilian firm when larger refueling aircraft were needed. The outsourcing firm, Omega Air, has equipment similar to what the air force uses (two Boeing 707s, the civilian version of the KC-135, and a DC-10), and can deliver fuel for $7 a gallon. Noting this, Congress has ordered the air force to establish a pilot program, to see if this kind of service would work for the air force. On paper, it should. Most of the aerial refueling takes place outside of combat zones. Congress sees outsourcing a lot of in-flight refueling activity as a way to solve the problem of replacing the 40 year old air force KC-135 tankers, while also saving a lot of money. The air force objects because of qualms about being able to order contractor refueling aircraft to a combat zone. That's an official qualm. Unofficial objections have more to do with losing aircraft and people in uniform. Those numbers are one of the ways you keep score in the Pentagon. Historically, armies and navies have been outsourcing logistical functions for thousands of years, and even some combat functions as well. The air force knows this, but fears that the contractors will demonstrate a cheaper way to run parts of the air force, bringing into doubt the quality of current and past air force leadership. Congress ought to be careful with this one, as many inefficiencies in the air force are because Congress wanted something done a certain way, and wrote that into the legislation providing money for the air force.

 


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