House should support funding to replace aging OC-135 fleet
© Greg Nash

In the last twelve months, we have had more members of the military die from aviation accidents than in combat. This is a staggering statistic that my House Armed Services Committee colleagues and I are taking seriously. In last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), we took aggressive steps to ensure our military is fully prepared to complete their missions.

While I am proud of the significant progress we have made to restore our military readiness, I remain concerned that we are ignoring the safety of the Airmen who fly the OC-135.

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In 1992, the United States and thirty-three other nations entered the Open Skies Treaty. This landmark arms control agreement allows for unarmed aerial observation to enhance mutual understanding and reduce the chances of military conflict. As part of this treaty, Airmen of the 55th Wing conduct this mission with a small fleet of two specially-modified Boeing 707 aircraft from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Now entering their 57 years of service, these aircraft are old, increasingly difficult to maintain, and need to be replaced.

 

Many in Congress harbor legitimate concerns about Russian participation in the arms control regime put in place at the end of the Cold War. I share these concerns, especially with respect to Russia’s flagrant violation of the intermediate and short-range missile treaty known as INF. Russia has also impeded Open Skies access to two militarily sensitive regions on their borders for which they have earned reciprocal restrictions by the United States. However, to unilaterally limit our participation in this treaty by refusing to modernize our aircraft does not hurt Russia, it only hurts us.

The Department of Defense still values the unique access to Russia that the Open Skies Treaty provides. They are also concerned that the OC-135 no longer meets the mission requirements of the treaty. This is why Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently requested funding to replace the aging OC-135 fleet.  Modernizing these aircraft makes good strategic sense but there’s also a more practical reason to replace them. As these ancient aircraft continue to age, keeping them airworthy costs more, and increases risk to the people who fly them.  

The age of the OC-135 airframe means that breakdowns are more frequent and take longer to fix.  Over the years it has become common for our aerial observer teams to get stranded in remote parts of Russia for extended periods, often requiring complex and expensive recovery operations. More concerning, recently reported in-flight maintenance problems include an onboard fire, pressurization system failure, and landing gear that would not retract.  

We can do better. A new aircraft will address these concerns and save us money and man hours in the long run. Not funding a replacement means that America gets less, pays more, and unnecessarily puts our people at risk.  The 2019 NDAA we will debate on the floor of the House this week authorizes more than $40 billion to procure and modernize America’s military aircraft. The cost to replace our two worn-out OC-135s is minuscule in comparison.

This is why we need to fund the replacement of the OC-135 and I urge my colleagues in the House to support my amendment that does just that.

Rep. Bacon represents Nebraska’s 2nd District.  He is a retired Air Force Brigadier General and former commander of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.