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Twin Troubles for Air Force Tankers

The Air Force’s long-stalled effort to replace its fleet of Eisenhower-era aerial refueling tankers has become a poster child for the disruption caused by funding the Defense Department through a yearlong continuing resolution while the Pentagon sheds $46 billion in across-the-board sequester cuts at the same time.

After languishing for the better part of a decade, the Boeing Co. program is getting under way in earnest, with plans to deliver the first batch of 18 militarized 767s to the Air Force by 2017. As such, the program is on a steep upward funding slope, with its budget expected to grow from $877 million last year to $1.8 billion this year.

The Air Force considers the tanker its top procurement priority and, in a summary of its fiscal 2013 budget request, stated that it’s not a true global force without a full fleet of tankers, which refuel combat aircraft in midair.

But a simple extension of the continuing resolution would hold the KC-46A tanker, in its research and development stage, at $877 million. That doesn’t even factor in the sequester, which would cut another 9 percent from the tanker’s budget this year, reducing it to $800 million — or $1 billion below the fiscal 2013 request.

The budget proposal offered Monday by House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., would restore most of that money and help to keep the ambitious effort to replace the Air Force’s venerable fleet of KC-135 refueling tankers largely on track.

The House bill (HR 933) would fund the tanker at $1.7 billion, just slightly below the administration’s request. The sequester would trim another $150 million from the program — but that’s still a far cry from the $1 billion that would be slashed from the tanker if it is hit by both a continuing resolution and the sequester.

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