The general in charge of transportation needs for the U.S. military said replacing the aging fleet of KC-135 aerial refueling tankers was his No. 1 modernization priority.

Any further delays in replacing this aircraft would add significant risk to the U.S. military's ability to move troops and firepower rapidly to a combat zone, U.S. Gen. Duncan McNabb, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, told a joint hearing of the seapower and air and land forces subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Pentagon last year canceled a contract with Northrop Grumman Corp, teamed with Europe's EADS, to begin building 179 replacement tankers -- a deal valued at $35 billion -- after government auditors upheld a protest filed by Boeing Co.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the sole holdover from President George W. Bush's cabinet, told Congress last month the Pentagon could restart the competition this spring, with a winner chosen in early 2010.

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