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The Tanker Decision Goes to Boeing—and Smears Fly

1:47 PM, Feb 28, 2011 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
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The underlying reality was that it was virtually impossible to establish a set of parameters to judge the two planes that did not favor one over the other; the real competition was over the “requirements.” Broadly speaking, if the premium was on how much a tanker could carry and what else it could do, then the larger Airbus was the preferred plane. On the other hand, if the issue was operational flexibility as a tanker and cost performance over the life-time of the plane's use, then the smaller Boeing plane would be the pick. While Boeing supporters were worried that European government’s direct subsidies would allow Airbus to low-ball its bid, the real life-time costs of operating and repairing a larger aircraft—costs that the Air Force would have to bear—could never be offset. Few questioned that the A330 offered greater capability on paper, only whether that extra capability was needed, could be utilized operationally, or was affordable.

Alas, the greed of a few Air Force and Boeing officials sparked the congressional intervention and turned the tanker replacement program into a political circus. As a result, the media coverage of the tanker competition moved from the trade press and the business pages to the subject of political reportage. And, in the current environment, it became just another datum to be fit into a conspiracy theory. But the fact is, there is no evidence that the initial decision, the appeal, or this most recent decision in favor of Boeing was a product of insider politics or shenanigans of any sort.

No doubt given the money involved and ongoing congressional interest in the tanker competition, the oversight committees of both the House and the Senate will be scrubbing this latest decision with a fine toothcomb. And given the thousands of jobs involved in Washington where Boeing will produce its tanker, and the thousands of jobs lost in Alabama where Airbus was going to manufacture its plane, it is to be expected that the senators and congressmen from those two states will look, respectively, to either defend or critique the Defense Department’s decision. And, of course, there is always a chance they will find something amiss again. But shouldn't the Journal and others wait until they do? 

And shouldn’t the coverage of the politics of the tankers be supplemented, at least, by an explanation of the military and budget realities that drove the Pentagon to make the decision it did? However, if this tangled tale must be reduced to a sermonette, shouldn’t the real moral of the story be about the overreaction by Congress to the original scandal? A simpler and wiser course would have been simply to prosecute the offenders, send them off to jail (which happened) and move on with the lease strategy that would have begun providing the replacement tankers far sooner and more affordably in light of the dire budget constraints the Air Force is now operating under. As Secretary of Defense Gates recently remarked, he’s not sure there will be sufficient money in the future even to complete the tanker buy.

Thus the real tragedy is that our pilots continue to climb into cockpits of Eisenhower-era KC-135 tankers—known in the civilian world as the Boeing 707 and a plane long ago retired from commercial service. So, while members of Congress have every right to look at how the Boeing 767 was chosen over the Airbus 330, they should nevertheless keep in mind that they were the ones most responsible for delaying the replacement of these antiques of the air and that further delays will only raise costs and risk lives.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Gary Schmitt is director of AEI’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.

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