Much of the US Army’s supply aircraft fleet is old – the newest KC-135 Stratotanker, for example, was built in 1965. And the sealift ships available to the US Army are also approaching the time when they should retire.
“When I look at Transcom’s capabilities, [when] I look at shipping, our ships are 46 years old,” Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of US Transportation Command, said in a discussion today with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The reserve fleet, she says, even includes steamships.
“You can’t even find engineers working on steamships,” she said. “We need to keep 60- or 70-year-old engineers to keep running them. We need to recapitalize that.”
Supply planes and sealift ships are important parts of US Transportation Command’s mission, and both must be recapitalized as soon as possible if Transcom is to continue to be as effective as it is.
Van Ovost said one way to bring new ships into the shipping fleet, at least in the short term, is to buy used ships. This is something the Navy is currently working on.
“In our discussions with the Navy, there is a strategy to start buying used ships, which was essentially our strategy almost 30 years ago,” she said. “It’s to buy second-hand ships and integrate them into the fleet because our fleet is old.”
Currently, she said, 37 of the 50 large “roll-on, roll-off” ships that Transcom has to move large military equipment are scheduled to retire in the next decade.
“We need to start a stabilized recapitalization program,” she said. “We’re working with the Navy on this pre-owned procurement strategy early on, and we’re working with Congress and we’ve been authorized to purchase up to nine pre-owned ships in combination with new ships.”
Equally important is new growth in shipbuilding capacity in the United States, she said.
“We need to revitalize our shipbuilding capacity and our ability at the docks to do repairs, maintenance and modifications,” she said. “It’s essential for our defense industrial base – not just for shipping, but frankly for all of our sea power.”
When it comes to aircraft that provide refueling capability – an important mission for Transcom – the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender have been workhorses for decades.
The KC-135 was first built in 1955, while the KC-10 entered service in 1980. Both aircraft have been well worn since entering service.
“We’re looking at the KC-10, in particular; it’s very expensive to keep that cell running,” she said. “It’s going to be very expensive to make it work. We have to replace it, and frankly, we have to start replacing the KC-135 as well.”
The KC-46 Pegasus, currently in limited service with the Air Force, is a suitable replacement aircraft, Van Ovost said, and is capable of more than just the tanker mission.
“It can do aeromedical evacuations. It can do cargo. It can do probe and drug refueling, and it’s connected to the network. It’s…Link-16; it’s our ability to see the battlespace, to pass on as a node in the network, which makes everyone better,” she said.
When it comes to recapitalizing capacity used by Transcom, Van Ovost is now the time.
“It is absolutely necessary that we recapitalize on such a schedule that we don’t find ourselves throwing away good after bad,” she said. “What I’m looking at is what the problem is, where are the gaps we’re trying to fill, and how do we get services to buy the capabilities to fill those gaps as soon as possible.”