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Friday Forecast: Tanker Turmoil

Friday Forecast: Tanker Turmoil

By Jed Babbin - February 24, 2011

On Friday, the Air Force is expected to choose between Chicago-based Boeing or the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS, the parent company of aircraft manufacturer Airbus) to build the next-generation tanker aircraft.

The contract will be worth as much as $40 billion and deliver as many as 179 aircraft to replace Eisenhower-era KC-135 aircraft which now comprises most of the Air Force tanker fleet. The Air Force has already requested $900 million for the program in 2012.

Congress too often interferes in Pentagon contract decisions but the interference isn't always a bad thing. On the bad side, congress had forced the Pentagon to plan to spend billions to establish a second company to manufacture engines for the Air Force and Navy F-35 fighter-bomber. When it cancelled the "second source" earlier this month, it acted in the best interest of the taxpayers because, to oversimplify a bit, the second source for F-35 engines was pork barrel spending: the Air Force neither needed nor wanted it.

Not only is the tanker replacement the Air Force's most urgent but it's also the most bitterly-contested defense contract in memory. The urgency comes from the fact that tankers are the key to America's ability to project power anywhere in the world. No matter what the crisis - be it to move and supply combat forces or to provide disaster relief to tsunami victims - the first thing the Pentagon does is put up the "tanker bridge." Without it, our forces can move at the speed of the fastest cargo ship.

As retired Air Force Gen. John Handy - former commander of Air Mobility Command which "owns" the tankers - said recently, "Not buying the right tanker could impair the United States' ability to project military power and deliver humanitarian aid across the globe for the next 50 years."

The newest of the 419 KC-135s is about 46 years old. Many of them cannot fly combat missions because their over-age airframes are simply worn out. The Air Force has been struggling for a decade to replace them. Air Force leaders have repeatedly stressed that the tanker replacement is their top purchasing priority.

The bitterness of the contest is demonstrated in the decades-long fight between Airbus and Boeing for the $1.7 trillion global market for large civilian aircraft. On the basis of a US complaint, the World Trade Organization last year ruled illegal many of the subsidies European governments give Airbus, such as below-market rate loans and grants for construction of manufacturing plants. Last month, WTO issued a still-confidential ruling on a European counterclaim, finding that Boeing was subsidized by the US government. (The European complaint was based on issues such as government research contracts Boeing receives. The difference between research contracts and below-market loans is that Boeing has to produce something of benefit to the government, not just gain commercial advantage against foreign competitors.)

When rumors of a Boeing win circulated last March, French President Nicholas Sarkozy accused us of protectionism. He, and others, will certainly condemn an award to Boeing on that basis.

This week's action will be the third Air Force attempt to award a contract for the new tanker. The first was an unusual arrangement for the Air Force to lease new tankers built by Boeing. That was cancelled when an Air Force civilian and a senior Boeing executive were revealed to have corrupted the deal. Both went to jail. The second try failed in 2008 when the Government Accountability Office overturned an award to a Northrup Grumman-EADS partnership because the Air Force had improperly ignored problems with the Airbus aircraft that conflicted with the mission requirements a tanker had to meet.

And that is where Congress should focus its attention on whichever aircraft the Air Force chooses. Whenever the Air Force buys an aircraft, the "requirements" are supposed to be set in accordance with the needs of the combat forces. Its range, speed, carrying capacity and hundreds of other factors are among the minimum requirements it must meet. Those requirements are established in a series of trade-offs, and the warfighters are supposed to have the last word on what features are the most important.

Those trade-offs are complicated by a decision by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to end purchasing of the C-17 cargo aircraft. According to my sources, some Pentagon civilian leaders are trying to make up for the C-17 cancellation by pushing the purchase of the Airbus which supposedly can perform as a cargo aircraft as well as a tanker. But such a justification for the choice of Airbus flies in the face of public statements by uniformed leaders, including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, that we have enough airlift capacity at this point.

In the last go-round, the Air Force devalued speed, acceleration and maneuverability of the Boeing aircraft in favor of the greater range and cargo capacity of the Airbus. The result, as the GAO found, was that the Air Force illegally ignored the fact that the Airbus lacked both sufficient top speed and acceleration to perform certain flight maneuvers which must be performed to refuel fast aircraft safely.

Because the requirements for speed and acceleration remain the same - and the fact that the Airbus A-330 in the current round is the same aircraft offered the last time - it logically shouldn't win the competition. If it does, the Air Force will have - again - bought lawsuits and congressional hearings rather than tanker aircraft. 

Because the tanker contract is so important and so many dollars are at stake, whichever choice the Air Force makes will immediately become a major political controversy. When Congress becomes involved it must focus on the mission requirements, not the domestic (and, if Boeing wins, international) political issues.

The question boils down to this and this alone: will the aircraft chosen meet the warfighters' needs?

Political pressure on the defense budget is great and increasing. But that political pressure must not result in a trade-off that sacrifices basic mission needs. You can buy a tanker or a cargo plane, but if you try to buy one aircraft to perform both missions, you're going to end up with something that does neither mission well and shortchanges our warfighters' needs.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

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