WC-135 in Eielson

The Air Force is seeking $208 million to replace two breakdown-prone WC-135 jets from the 55th Wing with three aerial-refueling tankers refitted for the planes' nuclear detection mission. In this 2011 photo, one of the WC-135s is shown on the ramp at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.

The Air Force is seeking $430 million to pay for five aircraft to replace Offutt-based planes that were built in the 1960s and lately have been plagued by maintenance difficulties.

The Trump administration’s 2019 budget request includes $222 million to buy two new small airliners and equip them with cameras that allow the U.S. to photograph military facilities in Russia and other countries as part of the Open Skies Treaty.

The budget request also includes $208 million to convert three KC-135R aerial-refueling tankers into “Constant Phoenix” jets capable of detecting and identifying fallout from nuclear explosions in North Korea or elsewhere.

All five new and reconditioned jets would fall under the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base.

They would replace four existing aircraft — two Open Skies and two Constant Phoenix — that were built in the early 1960s and break down frequently.

The Air Force seldom discusses the Constant Phoenix missions, but the two current aircraft are known to have deployed in 2016 and 2017 to Kadena Air Base, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, to monitor a series of North Korean nuclear tests.

The two WC-135 jets have among the worst breakdown records of any Air Force aircraft. In March 2017, one of the jets was grounded in Indonesia for more than two weeks after one of its engines caught fire as it cruised over the Indian Ocean en route to Japan.

“The WC-135 is the one in the most need,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who is a former 55th Wing commander. “The world needs this capability to sense nuclear tests.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asked the Air Force’s top military leader about the funding for the Constant Phoenix planes during a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, said the two existing aircraft don’t meet the needs of military commanders.

“Because the current airplanes are old, they’re wearing out,” Goldfein told the committee. “Being able to convert this into the KC-135 gives us more longevity for that critical mission.”

The KC-135 tankers were built between 1955 and 1964, so the “new” aircraft would be about the same age as the old ones. Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an email that they would come from a group of tankers that have been retired from the Air Force fleet.

She said converting the tankers would take 18 to 24 months each, and work on the first would begin in September 2019. The work would be done by Texas-based L3 Technologies, which handles modifications and depot maintenance for the 55th Wing reconnaissance fleet.

The two existing Constant Phoenix jets would be retired from service and eventually scrapped.

The Open Skies request would fund the cost of purchasing two small airliners for photography missions carried out mostly over Russia as part of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty. Under the treaty, the United States, Russia and 32 other member nations are allowed to fly over one another’s territory and conduct aerial photography, with permission and supervision by the host country.

But the flights have prompted sniping between the U.S. and Russia, particularly since the Russian seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The Russians have introduced newer Tu-214 aircraft with up-to-date digital cameras for Open Skies flights in recent years, while the U.S. has continued to use a pair of OC-135 jets built in 1961 equipped with obsolete wet-film cameras. The Air Force is spending $45 million to upgrade the cameras. The lag in technology has caused concern for commanders at the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command.

Like the Constant Phoenix jets, the Open Skies aircraft have been troubled by mechanical difficulties. Between January and August 2016, the U.S. scrubbed three of nine Open Skies flights over Russia because of mechanical problems, the Air Force said at the time, and Russian media reported on a similar cancellation last year.

The new Open Skies planes would be the 55th Wing’s first brand-new aerial reconnaissance jets since 1967, said Robert Hopkins III, a former 55th Wing pilot and author of “The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker: More Than a Tanker,” a history of the aircraft.

“Most everything else they’ve gotten has been used by somebody else,” Hopkins said.

The Air Force also has requested $185 million for improvements to other 55th Wing reconnaissance jets based at Offutt.

World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.

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