As a United States Marine, I learned that there is far more to fielding an effective soldier in battle than training and equipping the individual soldier. A core component to reinforcing our ground forces — like the men and women serving here in Columbus, Georgia, at Fort Benning — is transporting, equipping, resupplying and supporting them on the ground. In today’s military, this work most often takes place via air support.
Our military ground forces are deploying more globally today than ever before. Combat conditions are dynamic and change quickly. In order to support our forces on the ground, it is critical that air transport, medivac, communications and close air support assets arrive on time and with adequate fuel to support our forces. If we fail in this duty, we risk leaving our ground forces unsupported and exposed to combat conditions on the ground.
One of the most critical components to providing aviation support is adequate fuel. Our armed forces rely on air to air refueling for this support. Simply put, without a ready supply of aviation gas and jet fuel, the air support components backing our ground forces are rendered inoperable.
For years, the venerable KC-135 has provided this capability well. It is structurally similar to a Boeing 707. Many of us have distant memories of flying 707s, but they left commercial service years ago. The current tanker fleet is nearing the end of its life, and these aircraft are already becoming expensive to operate due to repair and retrofit needs.
The Department of Defense recognized this and ran a selection process for a replacement tanker. The process was marked by a fair amount of controversy and limited participation from manufacturers. The final product selected was the KC-46. However, it has faced significant delays, cost overruns and operational challenges.
The delays in KC-46 manufacturing and operation are being diligently worked on by the contractor and the Air Force. However, the combination of delayed delivery and added costs means we will likely have fewer aircraft in service with deployment dates delayed. Meanwhile, we are being called upon to support our ground forces on an even more global and rapidly changing basis than ever before. Recent events in the Ukraine clearly indicate our ability to deploy rapidly to Europe to meet our NATO commitments continues to increase.
To address this real gap between KC-46 deployment and development of a future next generation tanker, the Air Force is considering a “bridge tanker” program that would provide a new aircraft to fill this gap between present assets and future needs. To ensure our ground forces have the aviation support that is essential to their combat effectiveness, the Defense Department should strongly back a rigorous and open process to get the best possible solution fielded.
Winning a war on the ground is about far more than soldiers, tanks, artillery and rifles. Without air support that can be deployed on time and globally, we put our Army and Marine forces at serious risk. It is important to all of us in Columbus who care deeply about the safety and success of ground forces to pay attention to this process and urge the Air Force to take the steps that are needed.
Ed Harbison is a Georgia State Senator for the 15th District. He served as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps and is a Purple Heart recipient.
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