In late March Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall indicated the service would be buying more KC-46 refueling aircraft instead of allowing for a competition to invest in a potentially more capable ‘bridge’ tanker. “As we’ve looked at our requirements,” Kendall said, “the likelihood of a competition has come down.” The Air Force’s FY2023 budget briefer and proposed 2023 force structure nominally keeps the tanker fleet the same, while shifting the fleet’s emphasis to the KC-46, and retiring older tankers as part of a “Divest to Invest” strategy. More broadly, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman Mark Milley confirmed, the Air Force will commit to Divest to Invest, shrinking its number of airframes to free up funds for future programs. All this points to the death of the bridge tanker program.
With all respect, the Air Force should look again.
Without a robust tanker fleet, American combat aviation will experience a window of vulnerability in the mid to late 2020s—precisely when Chinese regional aggression is most likely.
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