OPINION

The American-made KC-46 just makes sense for Kansas and U.S. European A330 MRTT would be a bad fit.

Steve Morris
Special to Gannett Kansas
Steve Morris

Tankers are critical to U.S. security and play a vital role in our nation’s enduring air dominance. With over 1,800 flight hours and two tours in Vietnam, I know firsthand the ease and reliability of an aircraft like the KC-135 refueling tanker. It’s been the go-to tanker for several generations with 65 years of operation.

I’m in awe of KC-135 for its likely 100-year service life. As KC-135 is being phased out by the U.S. Air Force, it reiterates the importance and necessity for upgrades and newest technology to make way for the tanker of the future — the KC-46 Pegasus.

The maturation of the American-made KC-46 has been years in the making. As it begins its mission at Air Force bases across the country, its impact will be significant for our military, Kansas and taxpayers.

Kansas is home to McConnell Air Force Base, America’s largest KC-46 operating base, which received its first Pegasus in January 2019. Since then, the KC-46 has forged the path forward for the next generation of Rapid Global Mobility — a key priority for the Air Force under USAF Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown.

In a recent interview, Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth explained that he was confident the KC-46 would be the backbone of the Air Force’s tanker fleet, noting specifically that “it’s all about capability” and focusing on “the kind of capabilities we need in order to make sure that we can prevail.” The KC-46 fits the bill.

The KC-46 is designed to meet the unique demands of the U.S. Air Force. Its state-of-the-art refueling boom will be guided by airmen using next-gen 3-D camera and display technology to operate safely in all conditions. With unparalleled defensive systems, McConnell’s KC-46 aircrews will fly closer to the fight than any other refueling crew in history, extending the range of U.S. and allied fighters and bombers to deter and win the conflicts of tomorrow.

Some elected officials have suggested introducing the European A330 MRTT into the USAF fleet. That wouldn’t make military or economic sense. Our national security is at risk by not using a homegrown product like the KC-46. As a former state senator, my north star has always been to serve my country and my constituency and those principles continue to drive me as a private citizen. The MRTT is not right for our military, Kansas, or our country. To be reliant on another countries’ priorities for one of our most important defense platforms is not good policy.

The less-advanced European tanker isn’t allowed to refuel many U.S. military aircraft, like the F-15 fighter, which makes up a large portion of the Air Force’s current and future fleet. The MRTT also hasn’t been through the years-long U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration test and certification process to ensure the unique airworthiness and safety requirements for U.S. military aircraft.

The KC-46’s compact design makes it able to operate from existing military infrastructure at a lower cost, saving billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars. Bringing the larger, heavier European tanker to the USAF would require extensive reconfiguring of military bases, retraining of personnel and a second supply chain that would take years to develop. The Air Force cannot afford such delays that would decrease readiness or the unnecessary added costs that take funds away from other priorities, like supporting McConnell airmen.

The KC-46’s smaller, more efficient footprint also allows the Air Force to employ more tankers at remote locations around the world where space and flexibility are necessary to meet the mission. This is especially important considering the long-term USAF defense strategy outlined by General Brown, which describes multiple battlefronts with near-peer adversaries, such as China. The KC-46 allows missions to continue virtually uninterrupted due to its USAF-specified design and will save time and money for the military and taxpayers with its steady supply chain and available spare parts.

The KC-46 tanker not only makes sense militarily but also economically. In Kansas, the Pegasus has a $200 million annual estimated economic impact and supports thousands of jobs across more than 20 Kansas-based supplier companies. As the dominant refueling tanker, the KC-46 will represent the next era of ingenuity and productivity at McConnell Air Force Base — one of the area’s biggest employers with more than 17,000 military and civilian workers.

As the Air Force continues working to modernize its Eisenhower-era tanker fleet, it’s clear the KC-46 is the best long-term option both in capability and cost. It’s a generation beyond the current field of operational tankers and represents a bright future for the Air Force, the Wichita community and the American taxpayer.

Former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris is a farmer from Hugoton.