Logistics: Privatizing Aerial Refueling

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March 20,2008: Now we have private contractors providing in-flight refueling services. Their biggest customer is the U.S. Navy. That's because the navy has long depended on the U.S. Air Force for most of its aerial refueling needs. But the air force tankers are so heavily used with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the navy often finds itself at the end of the line and out of luck. The navy has long improvised, using C-130s, S-3s and even F-18s to provide some in-flight refueling capability. But nothing beats the air force KC-135s. So the navy helped (with refueling contracts) establish a private aerial refueling outfit.

Omega Refueling Services, Inc., was established last year, and currently has two Boeing 707s (the civilian airliner version of the KC-135) and one DC-10 operating as aerial tankers. Congress went along with this deal because Omega delivered fuel more cheaply than the air force. Currently, it costs the air force about $17.50 per gallon to deliver fuel in the air. Omega can do this for $7 a gallon. Noting this, Congress ordered the air force to establish a pilot program, to see if this kind of service would work for the air force. The air force is not too enthusiastic about this.

On paper, Omega should work on a large scale. Most of the aerial refueling takes place outside of combat zones. 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 to private firms. 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. Of course, Omega has another advantage it's military customers don't have, it can provide its services to anyone, and does. Although the navy gets dibs.

 


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