When Defense Secretary Robert Gates summarily fired the top civilian and military Air Force officials last week, the reason he gave was a grave failure of leadership with respect to that service’s nuclear missions. The low priority assigned by the Pentagon to its nuclear stewardship responsibilities is systemic and acute. Consequently, this act of accountability is both warranted and a needed wake-up call to all the armed forces.
As it happens, there is another ground on which the dismissal of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne could be justified. He was specifically brought in to clean up Air Force procurement, but ended up presiding over a disastrously mishandled procurement of the KC-X next-generation aerial tanker. The decision to award this contract worth conservatively $35 billion to a team led by the European aerospace conglomerate, EADS, should be considered a firing offense.
In the next few days, the Government Accountability Office is expected to rule on a protest to that award by the losing bidder, Boeing. If the GAO does its job, there is little doubt it will conclude the Air Force unfairly, even cynically, manipulated the acquisition process so as to enable EADS to compete with an aircraft that did not meet the service’s stated requirements and that was significantly more costly to operate.
In documents that have come to light since the contract award was announced in February, including an Air Force briefing provided to the losing company and a redacted version of Boeing’s protest, a number of facts are clear:
The Boeing tanker, based on the 767 commercial aircraft, is a known commodity. Two were delivered to the Japanese air force earlier this spring. Four more are currently being built for Italy. Its American manufacturing line is well-established. Its estimated costs are grounded in data developed during more than 10 million 767 flight hours.
By contrast, the EADS alternative known as the KC-30 is more the proverbial bird in the bush. None has been delivered. None has moved aviation fuel through an operational boom. And none has been produced by the politically-driven, Rube Goldberg-style production line that EADS proposes to establish on two continents – unless, that is, the costs grow. In which case, it turns out, the French-led conglomerate will build all of the U.S. Air Force’s new tankers in Toulouse, France, not Mobile, Alabama, with attendant loss of the promised American jobs.
Speaking of workforce, there is the natty problem that unions representing EADS employees have a record of rabid hostility towards the United States and its policies. The effect of entrusting one of the most important elements of our power-projection capabilities to foreign labor capable of production sabotage and/or work-stoppage could be catastrophic. That is especially true insofar as the reliance on EADS would not be confined to the manufacturing of the tankers. If past practice is any guide, the company that produced the planes would also be relied upon for maintenance over their expected 40-year service life.
Quite apart from the nationality of the source, there is the basic question of competence. Boeing is no newcomer to the business of building and supporting aerial refueling tankers. In fact it has been at it for 79 years and delivered a total of 2,000 tanker aircraft. It has delivered 1,800 operational refueling booms, the complicated piece of equipment used to move fuel safely and swiftly from the tanker to the recipient aircraft.
By contrast, the EADS team has been trying to develop a tanker business for just the last five years. To date, it has not delivered any aerial refuelers or operational booms. To repose confidence in such a team, to say nothing of its cost projections, entails a leap of faith that seems irresponsible in the extreme.
Finally, there is the matter of the mission. The Air Force, until strong-armed by a few legislators, rightly did not want as big a plane as the KC-30 for the simple reason that it is far better to have a larger number of smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft capable of operating from many airfields. In the competition, the KC-767 was deemed to have 98 strengths (“discriminators”) to just 30 for the Airbus option, with only 1 assessed weakness versus 5 for the KC-30. If the decision to go with the inferior, but larger aircraft stands, the taxpayer will have to eat an estimated $30 billion in additional fuel costs and billions more in otherwise unnecessary military construction charges.
The new leadership of the Air Force – which reportedly will include as its Secretary Michael Donley, a well-respected veteran and national security official during several administrations – should shortly have an opportunity, thanks to the GAO, to revisit the Wynne tanker selection. If and when it does so, the service must make its decision on the basis of:
* its actual requirement, not one adapted to suit a competitor, EADS, that could not otherwise compete;
* real costs, not those artificially and arbitrarily inflated to make Boeing’s proposal less viable and low-balled to help EADS; and
* the nation’s interest in having an indigenous supplier of vital tanker aircraft, produced by a loyal work-force capable of not only manufacturing the planes properly and cost-effectively but of reliably supporting them for decades to come.