Having spent quite a bit of time up close and personal behind various tankers in the back seat of Navy F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft, I am well aware of the tactical importance of the nation’s air refueling capability. As the Combat Direction Center Officer onboard the USS Enterprise during Operation Preying Mantis against the Iranians in 1988, I coordinated the airborne refueling of the Big E’s aircraft that drained two KC-10s and could have used more. I vividly remember having little fuel to give two returning low fuel fighters after the KC-10’s had left.
As a past director of the modeling and simulation for the USAF future capability wargame, and senior systems analyst supporting DoD for the last 12 years, I am very familiar with the operational and strategic importance of air refueling capabilities to our ability to project power in support of our foreign policy. As a fighter type, it pains me to say it, but even though there is not much glory in driving an airborne gas station in circles, we could not get much done without them.
That is why it gives me great alarm to see the contract for the next USAF tanker going to an overseas country. I have nothing against EADS and I do not care if Boeing gets the contract. I care about the availability of parts and repair services for the next 50 years. The average age of the current tanker is 47 years old.
A contract to buy a tanker is not a date, it is a marriage. Our relations are pretty good with France right now, but how well will they be over the next 50 years? The last 50 have been pretty shaky. Lack of critical parts at an important time could have an adverse impact on our security.
As a naval flight officer, I had to maintain a working knowledge of what our potential enemies were flying and what kind of weapons they were carrying. Not surprising, many were flying Soviet made weapon systems. Many that flew Soviet systems also flew French systems. There did not seem to be any discretion in their customer selection. The French still have customers that do not exactly fall into the “Friends of the U.S.” club and are folks who we want to keep far from our sophisticated military technology.
Our tankers need to be designed and manufactured in the United States by people cleared to work on our systems. A joint trainer aircraft with the British is a fine idea, but when it comes to weapons systems upon which our men and women in harms way stake their lives and our security, out sourcing is not just a bad idea, it is a bad strategic decision for our nation.
While supporting an Air Force contract, I did some out-years projection analysis on the aging tanker issue. Those out-years are just about here and the tanker of the future is still years from rolling out of a hanger. A procurement selection has been made by the USAF. Unfortunately, it is one that potentially puts our national security at risk.
The foremost responsibility of our Federal Government and the primary mission of the Department of Defense is the security of our nation. And they are on the verge of a decision that will potentially give leverage over our national security for the next 50 years to nations that have ranged from mildly unfriendly to hostile.
There must be a better solution. The new tanker needs to be designed, built and re-supplied domestically – no airframes or airframe parts shipped from overseas. Do what it takes to make that happen here in the U.S.
This is not just a trade issue. It should not be a means to improve relations with Europe. This is a strategic decision that is going to be with us for a long time, one that has been fiddled with for far too long. The USAF needs a new tanker, they needed it yesterday and it needs to be designed and built at home.