Remember the movie Wall Street, when the wealthy investor wants to make a wireless call and his cell phone is the size of a cinderblock? The lesson is that something can be great but was simply too large. There is a reason that portable phones didn’t catch on until they were small enough to fit in your pocket. Psychologically speaking, form enhances function, almost immeasurably.
The same thing is true in aviation. In the early 2000s, some experts were predicting that Airbus would corner the market on long-distance travel with its gigantic A-380. It was the largest plane ever put into production, but its size was a problem rather than a plus. “The A380 resulted from hubris, shoddy market analysis, nationalism, and simple wishful thinking,” industry analyst Richard Aboulafia told Smithsonian magazine. “Very simply, route fragmentation and airline right-sizing are clear realities.”
What he means is that airlines need smaller planes that can affordably fly more often, even with fewer people. The market for giant planes that carry more than 500 people is limited and always will be.
The same thing is true in military aviation. You don’t necessarily need the biggest plane to do the job; you absolutely need the best plane. Again, a powerful psychology of form dictates that it must enhance function, not deter from it. When it comes to tankers, the KC-46 Pegasus is the best plane for the job today.
That’s true even though it isn’t the biggest. European manufacturer Airbus (there is a theme developing) offers a larger tanker based on its A-330 platform. But being bigger doesn’t make it better. Sure, it can carry more fuel. But it also burns more fuel and so it needs to land more often than the Pegasus. Think of it this way: Even though a Honda Civic has a smaller gas tank than a Ford F-150, you can go further on a single tank of gas in the Civic because it has better mileage. That is true in the sky as well.
Military analyst Loren Thompson ran some numbers to illustrate the fuel problem. The Airbus design has 30% greater drag than the Pegasus, he computes. So “the Airbus tanker burns 1,000 more gallons of fuel per hour. Multiply the number of hours flown by the price of jet fuel, and operating costs over a 30-year service life become much higher than with KC-46,” he wrote. Burning more fuel means more CO2 emissions. If the military is concerned about the future of climate change, that is just one more reason to opt against the Airbus design.
Meanwhile, the larger Airbus design takes up a lot more space on the ground. With its bigger wingspan and larger fuselage, it needs almost 50% more space to park. That means you could fit three Pegasus tankers into the space needed for every two Airbus planes. The larger plane would also require more space simply to turn around after landing. So more of those tankers means less room for fighter jets or bomber jets: it would squeeze out the very aircraft it is meant to support.
Storage space isn’t a problem on some Air Force bases, I suppose. But most tend to be crowded. Especially those in forward areas, such as islands throughout the Pacific. The smaller Pegasus makes the most sense in these areas.
Larger aircraft also require longer runways to take off and land. Again, in many areas, space is at a premium. We cannot simply extend the runways on a coral atoll. Pegasus is already operating in these areas. The newer design might simply be too large to be effective.
At this point, the debate seems almost over. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who clearly understands how to optimize the psychology of form and function, says the service wants to keep buying more of the superior Pegasus tankers, and the European alternative is expected to remain on the drawing board. That makes sense. The American military needs the best tanker available, even if it isn’t the biggest.