The United States Air Force has recently intimated a plan to reduce their fleet of aerial refueling tankers by roughly 5 percent.
At a recent Heritage Foundation think tank event, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed their plan to request from Congress, permission to cut the fleet of these tankers to 455. The previous minimum required number of refueling aircraft was 455.
In this regard, Congress has commented that 479 was the requirement set when they passed the National Defense Authorization Act, in 2019. These specifications were based on a 2018 TRANSCOM study that identified the minimum fleet size the US military should maintain to address new conflict. By the end of last year, 2021, the US Air Force had upped their fleet of tankers to 490.
According to Kendall, a minimum tanker capacity of 455 is certainly “adequate” for a response to a threat from China. Military officials consider threats from China to be, perhaps, the biggest current pacing threat; though other missions are also a high priority. At the same time, the Air Force has cautiously observed that it is not entirely possible to do everything all at once, especially in this difficult fiscal environment. Furthermore, he has advised that their ability to respond to more than one major crisis simultaneously could put their limitations to the test.
In addition to this, Kendall has also noted that the Air Force has a growing concern that the existing tankers could easily face a growing threat of attack in a combat situation. Effectively, they could be shot down. Designing a more appropriate tanker that is better able to handle combat situations is certainly a central question the Air Force continues to ask when envisioning what the next generation of tankers should look like and how they should work.