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Time to Split the Baby

A solution to the Air Force’s tanker woes.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JOHN NOONAN
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With Airbus and Boeing producing capable aircraft with unique advantages, Congress could split the baby with a 50/50 buy from Airbus and Boeing, replacing both the KC-10 and the KC-135. It should also be noted that the Air Force rejected a mixed-fleet replacement for the KC-135 in 2007, claiming that it would unnecessarily inflate costs. But that math is fuzzy and didn’t factor in replacing the KC‑10 as well. With a budget to buy 15 airframes a year, splitting the fleet would force strong competition between Boeing and Airbus to control construction and sustainment costs. 

One fact that has emerged from the gnarly world of defense acquisition is that competition is a proven cost-control mechanism. The so-called F-16 “engine wars” during the 1980s ended up saving the Pentagon billions, as did comparable fights over cruise missile and Navy systems contracts. As the KC-X program is projected to last 40 years, allowing for either EADS or Boeing to have a monopoly on logistics, maintenance, and refurbishment, contracts could significantly inflate both the ownership and operation price tag.

Further, this approach makes the most sense from a capabilities standpoint. In 2008, the entire fleet of C‑model F-15s was grounded owing to a structural flaw. As a result, Canada’s limited inventory of CF-18 interceptors had to take over a significant portion of the North American air defense mission. A similar flaw in the new tanker, should we hold ourselves to a single model, could be catastrophic. F‑15Cs have a sole mission: air interdiction. The KC-X will have many. The effects of a grounding would be felt throughout the entire military, and it would instantly reduce the combat capability of the rest of the Air Force fleet, hamper our capacity to transport men and materials to overseas stations, and also restrict the range of Navy and Marine aircraft that rely on Air Force refuelers. Pragmatic redundancy in the military world is never a bad thing; indeed, it is one of the guiding principles of modern warfare.

Given the deep complexities of the KC-X fight, there is no silver bullet here. But both Congress and the Pentagon should be careful to keep the interests of our fighting men and women at the forefront of this debate. A hybrid fleet of Airbus and Boeing planes provides the best solution to a tough problem, both from a cost perspective and—more important—from a capabilities standpoint. 

In the end, the real enemy is further dallying. The Air Force needed this jet a decade ago; the longer we wait, the more the overall buy will cost. Crafting a strong, annual competition between Boeing and EADS, replacing both the KC-135 and the KC-10, and swiftly standing up squadrons of new tankers should be a top priority of the new Congress.

John Noonan is a policy adviser at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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