The Air Force will have to sustain KC-135 tankers until they are more than 80 years old on average and its KC-10s past an average age of 54 as it executes its tanker modernization plan, Maj. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, special assistant to the commander of Air Force Materiel Command, told lawmakers Thursday. Keeping KC-135s and KC-10s in service for decades more will require several “multi-stage initiatives” to keep the aircraft “viable and relevant,” said Litchfield in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces panel. Current initiatives including modernizing their air traffic management and friend-or-foe identification systems, he said. “Both airframes will be in uncharted territory in terms of structural and systems issues attributed to age, obsolescence, and diminishing manufacturing sources,” said Litchfield. “We should expect keeping a fleet this long will result in greater demands on our airmen, higher sustainment costs, and challenges to aircraft availability.” The tanker modernization plan currently is focused on fielding the new KC-46A tanker to replace the oldest KC-135s.
U.S. Air Force F-35s and F-22s regularly deploy deep into the Pacific region from Alaska, Utah, and Hawaii. In the future, though, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command would like to see the Air Force permanently station fifth-generation aircraft west of the international date line—closer to China.