Air Force Seeks Momentum in Aerial Tanker Program Finding a replacement for the aging KC-135 aerial refueling tanker is the Air Force's top priority for new aircraft, the military branch said Thursday. The tanker program has been dogged by scandal after a senior Air Force official, along with a former top Boeing Corp. executive, were sentenced to prison for improperly steering contracts to the plane maker. Congress also has been investigating the multi-billion dollar program.

Air Force Seeks Momentum in Aerial Tanker Program

Air Force Seeks Momentum in Aerial Tanker Program

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Finding a replacement for the aging KC-135 aerial refueling tanker is the Air Force's top priority for new aircraft, the military branch said Thursday. The tanker program has been dogged by scandal after a senior Air Force official, along with a former top Boeing Corp. executive, were sentenced to prison for improperly steering contracts to the plane maker. Congress also has been investigating the multi-billion dollar program.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR'S John Hendren reports.

JOHN HENDREN: It takes a long time for the Air Force to buy a new plane. How long? Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne likes to put it this way.

MICHAEL WYNNE: The mother of the last pilot for the KC-135 has actually not been born yet.

HENDREN: So to get things started, Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Buzz Moseley made this announcement at Bolling Air Force base in Maryland.

MICHAEL MOSELEY: This morning we're going to - we are announcing that our priorities for procurement are the following. The new tanker is number one.

HENDREN: But the Air Force still desperately wants to replace its tanker fleet. The plan is for the first round of up to 200 tankers. The cost, an estimated $20 billion. But analysts say the total cost for replacing the current fleet of 580 mostly Eisenhower era jets could top $100 billion. And Air Force Chief of Staff General Moseley says the process will take more than three decades.

MOSELEY: Our desire all along has been to start the process because you take 30 years and add it to a 40 something year old airplane. Now, you're in the business of potentially operating an 80-year-old airplane in combat.

HENDREN: Moseley said he didn't asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the other civilians overseeing the Pentagon what they thought of the new tanker effort. Defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute says that's how important the program is to the Air Force.

LOREN THOMPSON: The reason why the Air Force is so intent on replacing its aerial refueling tankers is because the fleet average is over three times the age of the commercial airline fleet. You really can't get a fighter or a bomber into places like Afghanistan without these planes. But they're so old, they're afraid that they might stop working, have a design flaw or something that would ground much of its fleet.

HENDREN: John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.

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