WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It's going to be one of the biggest "single buy" Air Force acquisitions since World War II: 179 aircraft at a cost of $200 billion over a 20-year period. The plane -- a "flying gas station" -- will replace the half-century-old U.S. fleet of KC-135 and KC-10 refueling tankers. Designated the KC-X by the Air Force, it's been on the drawing board for years. Not one of the new tankers has been built, but it's already in serious trouble. The problem: Some Americans seem intent on ensuring that a foreign aircraft manufacturer is awarded the contract to build these planes because it will bring a handful of jobs to their state. If they succeed, it will be a major disaster for American taxpayers and American jobs.
For more than a decade Air Force wonks have been tinkering with the design and specifications for a new aerial tanker. The planes are an absolute necessity for the kinds of worldwide deployments being conducted in the global war on terror -- or "The Long War" -- in Washington's new vernacular. In fairness, there are numerous factors beyond size, speed, range, payload and price that must be considered by the decision makers, including arcane procurement rules and regulations dictated by the Office of Management and Budget, Congress and even the World Trade Organization (WTO). Not the least of these is the Berry Amendment, which mandates that our armed forces must "Buy American" unless no U.S. product or equipment is available.
When Air Force planners first started to work on a replacement for the KC-135 and KC-10, there were three U.S. aircraft manufacturers capable of bidding on and building such a plane: Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing. But that was then and this is now. Today, only Boeing remains -- unless the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS), owner of Airbus, is allowed to bid. They are, and there's the rub.
In order to compete for the lucrative tanker contract, EADS "teamed" with U.S.-based Northrop Grumman to offer the Air Force a tanker based on the Airbus A330 as an alternative to a Boeing 767 variant. Both companies have successfully converted these civil airframes into military tankers. Australia and the UK have chosen the Airbus' KC-30 for their aerial tanker fleets. Japan and Italy have decided on Boeing's KC-767A. All of this would seem to indicate that the USAF need only ask both competitors for bids, and select the plane that gives us the most bang for our buck. But if it were that simple, a contract for new KC-X tankers would already be awarded.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.