Air Force Assessment of the Joint Strike Fighter's Aerial Refueling Method

GAO-05-316R: Published: Mar 14, 2005. Publicly Released: Mar 14, 2005.

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Michael J. Sullivan
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The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) acquisition program is estimated to cost $245 billion to develop and produce three variants of stealthy fighter aircraft--a conventional takeoff and landing variant for the Air Force, an aircraft carrier variant for the Navy, and a short take-off and vertical landing variant for the Marine Corps and Air Force. A major goal of the JSF program is to reduce costs by maximizing commonality among variants. However, the Air Force conventional variant is being designed with a different aerial refueling method than those used by the two other JSF variants. U.S. fighters use two different methods for aerial refueling. Air Force fixed-wing aircraft are all currently fueled by a boom that extends from a tanker aircraft and is guided into a receptacle. The Navy and Marine Corps fighters use a probe that extends from the fighter to receive fuel when inserted into a drogue, which is a basket-like device on the end of a hose that extends from the tanker. The Senate Armed Services Committee directed that we (1) examine the rationale behind the Air Force refueling decision for its JSF version, (2) determine the savings if the Air Force decided to change its refueling method on its JSF, and (3) determine the operational advantages or disadvantages if the Air Force decided to change its refueling method. This letter summarizes the information we provided committee staff on December 16, 2004.

Revising the Air Force's conventional JSF aircraft refueling method from a boom to a probe and drogue would require modifying most of its current KC-135 tanker aircraft at an estimated cost of $2.5-$3.5 billion according to the Air Force. This estimated cost far outweighs the cost savings gained from having a common JSF refueling configuration estimated to be about $180 million for the JSF program. However, the Air Force estimate of costs and savings does not consider the future tanker acquisition and potential cost savings if the Air Force JSF was refueled by the probe and drogue method. For example, a Rand Corporation study concluded that tanker requirements could be reduced from 17 percent to 50 percent depending upon specific warfighting scenarios if a tanker has the capability to refuel simultaneously two aircraft with the probe and drogue method. Using the current inventory of KC-135 tankers as a replacement baseline and a Congressional Budget Office estimate of $150 million for a new tanker, a 17-percent reduction in the number of tankers required could equate to an estimated savings of $13.7 billion. The Air Force assessment of JSF refueling requirements did not fully address advantages and disadvantages of each method to make it clear whether a change is beneficial to DOD.

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