New Air Force One Jets To Have 1,200 Nautical Miles Less Range Than Originally Required
Details about this reduced requirement, among others, have emerged along with news that the White House wants the planes delivered sooner.
A new Pentagon report to Congress reportedly says that the two future Air Force One replacement aircraft, which won't have a mid-air refueling capability, will have an approximate maximum range that is over 1,000 miles less than originally planned. The pair of modified Boeing 747-8is, which will be designated VC-25Bs, will have a number of other reduced capabilities compared to the original requirements, even as it appears that the program's costs have grown. These revelations all come as President Donald Trump's Administration is seeking to speed up delivery of the planes and maybe even change their iconic blue-and-white paint scheme.
Bloomberg was first to reveal the new details on June 7, 2019, citing a copy of one of the most recent Selected Acquisition Reports, a U.S. military review of major acquisition programs that it provides to lawmakers on a regular basis. The document, which is reportedly unclassified, but marked "For Official Use Only," says the original range requirement for the VC-25Bs was approximately 7,100 nautical miles. Now the Air Force expects that planes will only be able to fly 5,900 nautical miles. The jets will also only be able to carry 71 passengers, down from a planned 87, and only have communications equipment to support 70 simultaneous "voice and data connections," rather than 80, according to Bloomberg.
The Air Force says the current Air Force One aircraft, also known as VC-25As, which are based on the Boeing 747-200 design, can also carry 71 passengers, but the exact capabilities of their communications suites are unclear. In 2017, one of the aircraft emerged from a major overhaul with additional communications antennas. You can read more about that particular upgrade and the aircraft's general communications capabilities here.
There is no explanation for why the approximate maximum range of the VC-25B, which will be based on the commercial Boeing 747-8i, is now 5,900 nautical miles. The commercial 747-8i can travel distances up to nearly 7,800 nautical miles, according to Boeing. The new Air Force Ones will require hardening to survive the aftermath of a nuclear blast, including electromagnetic pulses, as well as a bevy of specialized equipment, all of which adds weight, but the dramatic loss of range is curious.
But if the figure in the Selected Acquisition Report is accurate, the VC-25As will have significantly greater range than their forthcoming replacements, being able to fly a maximum distance of approximately 6,800 nautical miles without refueling, according to official Air Force fact sheet. Even if the exact range of the VC-25B turns out to be closer to the original requirement, this isn't significantly greater than that of the existing aircraft, which also have the ability to refuel in mid-air. This is another requirement the Air Force had officially nixed sometime prior to the 2016 election as part of an approximately $500 million cost-cutting effort. There has been some talk among members of Congress about forcing the Air Force to reinstate this requirement, but there has been no public announcement about any new change in this regard.
The War Zone has already explored how problematic the decision was to remove the aerial refueling requirement in the first place, which inherently limits the aircraft's flexibility, especially during a major crisis. Air Force One's ability to keep the President, their closest advisers, and other senior officials airborne for long stretches of time is an essential part of how the plane fits into the U.S. government's so-called “continuity of government” planning, something you can read about more here.
Without mid-air refueling, there would be a danger that the plane might have no choice but to land in less secure locations in order to refuel, putting the President and his entourage at increased risk. During a nuclear attack, landing options at regional airfields could be very severely limited or even non-existent, especially due to the unknown circumstances that would surround such a horrific event.
These concerns are only more pronounced given that the VC-25Bs are now supposedly set to have nearly 1,000 miles less range than the existing VC-25As. Some have touted the 747-8i's increased range over the 747-200 as one mitigating factor for losing aerial refueling capability. If this report is accurate, that argument is now invalid. It also raises questions about whether the President would actually employ these aircraft in a major crisis, rather than fly on board an aerial refueling-capable command post such as the E-4B Night Watch aircraft, or the successor to those planes.
It might have to become standard procedure for an E-4B, or a similar plane, to accompany the VC-25Bs on all major trips in case of such an emergency, something that may not always be an option. The entire point of Air Force One to be able to operate as a secure airborne command center is to obviate the immediate need for another aircraft during a contingency, including one where the President may already be airborne at the time.
On top of all this, it remains unclear how much these changes in the Air Force One replacement plans, among others, such as buying orphaned 747-8is as the basis for the VC-25B conversions, have actually saved taxpayers. Even before taking office in 2017, Trump had personally taken aim at the costs of the Air Force Ones replacements, which you can read about more here. The Selected Aquisition Report did the Trump Administration credit for shaving $1.4 billion off the total program cost, according to Bloomberg, but these claims have repeatedly proven to be questionable at best.
As it stands now, the combined price tag of the pair of VC-25Bs is just shy of $4.7 billion, while the total program's cost, including new hangars and other ancillary items, is around $5.3 billion. These figures that are higher than the Trump Administration's claim that the total was $3.9 billion almost a year ago, as well as long-standing Air Force estimates that pegged the cost at around $4 billion.
There is no guarantee these costs won't increase, either. In 2018, Trump personally indicated that he would like the see the VC-25Bs in a red, white, and blue paint scheme, replacing the existing livery, which dates to the Kennedy Administration. First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis was instrumental in the creation of the current blue-and-white design, as well as interior features in the VC-137C aircraft that were first to carry the new paint job.
The Air Force confirmed to Bloomberg that it, along with the White House, was reviewing new paint scheme options. Recently, members of the House Armed Services Committee inserted language into a draft version of the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act, for the upcoming 2020 Fiscal Year, which would block changes to the paint scheme, as well as the interior design, without Congressional approval. It remains to be seen whether these clauses will make it into any final version of the NDAA and if that bill becomes law.
At present, the Air Force says that no decision on the paint scheme will occur until 2021, which is notably after the next presidential election. A new president could direct further changes in the program. The service only expects Boeing to delivery the first VC-25B in September 2024, which would be just four months before Trump would leave office if he wins a second term. The Selected Acquisition Report says that the White House is pushing to move this date up to December 2023, according to Bloomberg.
"We have been asked to consider all opportunities to deliver the Air Force One replacement aircraft as soon as possible while providing the safest, suitable, and effective aircraft to meet presidential missions," the Air Force told Bloomberg in the statement. "We continue to look for every opportunity with Boeing to do this."
But, given what we know now, there can only be significant questions about the final capabilities of the two VC-25Bs, regardless of their final cost and what their paint job looks like in the end.
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