Awarding contracts both to Boeing and Northrop Grumman to build new tanker aircraft for the Air Force and buying a total of up to 36 of them per year remains the best way to recapitalize the service’s Eisenhower-era KC-135s, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee defense panel, told reporters Wednesday in Washington, D.C. “I’d like to have three a month and I’d like to have a split buy,” he said. Murtha has long championed this approach rather than seeing the Pentagon attempt another winner-take-all competition that could become mired in legal protests and controversy as did the first KC-X go-around that ended unsuccessfully last year. Indeed, procuring the tankers from a single supplier and building them at rates of one per month is “just prolonging the agony” of maintaining the elderly KC-135s, which will eventually need costly new outer skin and perhaps new engines in coming years, he said. “I really believe that, if you look at the statistics that we have put together, that you save money if you buy two or three tankers a month,” he explained. Murtha said he discussed the tanker issue with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday. Gates was “non-committal,” but “he listened to what I had to say,” Murtha said. Gates has gone on the record vehemently opposing a dual tanker buy, saying it would be too costly. However, Murtha gave the impression that there is some leeway in Gates’ position, noting that there are “three or four” issues in the Pentagon’s Fiscal 2020 defense budget proposal on which Gates isn’t willing to negotiate, but KC-X “isn’t one of them.” Murtha said he’d also recently discussed the tanker issue with Ashton Carter, Gates’ new acquisition czar.
The Air Force overall reduced its size by 120 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, but kept about the same number of fighter, bomber and attack aircraft, according to data supplied by the service. The F-35 fleet saw the biggest increase while the B-1B bomber fleet saw the largest decline.