This week, the U.S. Air Force presented its revised request for proposals for the new KC-X tanker aircraft.  Industry now has 60 days to submit bids, and the contract for the new tankers should be awarded sometime this summer.

A new tanker is long overdue after a much-delayed and mismanaged process.

An AOL News story from earlier this week paints an alarming picture of the decrepit tanker fleet.  The KC-135 Stratotanker planes the Air Force flies today were built during the Eisenhower administration, and many are more than 50 years old.  AOL News describes how they often need to be grounded with leaks or broken parts, sometimes for weeks on end as Air Force engineers cannibalize old tankers in the “Boneyard” near Davis-Monthan Base in Arizona for spare parts or recreate them from scratch.

Under President Obama’s current budget plans, the Air Force will have to fly some KC-135 tankers until they are over 80 years old.  Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute warns that nobody knows whether this is feasible or safe, and AOL News cautions that “structural fatigue and corrosion pose the greatest threat.”  The risk of structural damage is rising as demanding wartime missions cause additional wear and tear.

The flying clunkers are also becoming a drain on resources.  Half-century old tankers burn an exorbitant amount of fuel and cost a great deal to maintain and repair.

Why does this all matter?  Tankers are indispensable to military success on the battlefield and maintaining operations around the world.

They provide aerial refueling for military aircraft and also serve as cargo carriers and medical transport aircraft when needed, flying wounded troops from Afghanistan to military hospitals in Germany, for example. “Without tankers, fighters aren’t going anywhere. If you lose the air bridge, you lose your ability to keep airplanes up,” an Air Force general told AOL News. “They are absolutely critical to every combat operation in the ability to project power.”

It is not only essential the Pentagon develop new tankers quickly, but also that its leaders do so in a way that encourages innovation and reaps the benefits of competition. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday that he was “very hopeful” the RFP would include bids from two competitors—both Boeing and Northrop Grumman.  But this is not assured.

As Heritage has repeatedly warned, our bomber pilots and carrier aircraft pilots may soon find themselves in a similar predicament, unless Congress works to increase the emphasis on recapitalization as the defense budget bills move this spring.  The bottom line remains that the military needs a new tanker yesterday and no one should tolerate any further delays in fielding this critical platform as quickly as possible.