21st century Pentagon procurement practices

Posted: Aug 04, 2003 12:00 AM

When my good friend Donald Rumsfeld was appointed as our nation's 21st secretary of defense, I knew our military and our military's morale would receive not only a boost but a robust change in approach to our national defense posture. Indeed, prior to the worst attack on our nation's soil in American history, Rumsfeld had initiated a bold plan to transform the military into a truly modern technologically advanced force capable of moving quickly, achieving decisive goals and, in sum, representing what a 21st century military force should be - not always fighting the last battle but looking ahead to the next one.

And then came Sept. 11, another day that will live in infamy. Like the previous day that will live in infamy, we could rest with some assurance that we had the right leadership and the right team to help us "make med'cines of our great revenge" and disrupt terrorist-sponsoring regimes throughout the globe. Just as President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary Henry Stimson had a crisis thrust upon them and rose to that challenge, President Bush and Rumsfeld confronted a new paradigm in warfare and defense capabilities and necessities. The transformation that Rumsfeld began prior to Sept. 11 was not only provident, it was essential to needs of the new types of unconventional warfare we would wage in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

The department does not always come up with useful or deployable ideas - witness the recently scuttled and actually dumb idea of an online terror futures market. Nevertheless, the department's unique way of thinking about our nation's defense usually leads to ideas that not only improve our military readiness and capabilities but also advance technology and societal life as well. Witness the development of the Internet.

Last week, for instance, the House Armed Services Committee approved a plan for the Air Force to lease 100 Boeing refueling tankers. With our need to fight air wars with fighters and bombers, we need to encourage and approve leasing plans for "flying gas stations" such as these. Our refueling tankers recently gained public attention when they were used to help keep our fighters and bombers in the air over our cities after Sept. 11 and on their way to Afghanistan.

According to Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, however, our Air Force's youngest refueling tankers in use are 40 years old: "The backbone of the tanker fleet is growing frail," Thompson says. Indeed it is, and indeed we need to do something about it, and now.

Col. Scott E. Wuesthoff, chief of the Air Force global mobility division, has said of our current refueling tankers: "These Eisenhower-era aircraft are the oldest combat weapons systems in the inventory and have been experiencing ever-increasing maintenance costs and serious corrosion problems."

Thompson agrees, reporting that on any given day "a third of our tankers are in repair shops" and with "repair costs skyrocketing" we need to do something very soon in order to maintain the readiness and capability expected of our lightening freedom and defense forces.

Leasing the Boeing tankers is an innovative and time-sensitive idea for the Pentagon, but leasing is a technique routinely used by commercial fleets. Instead of buying the new refueling tankers, the leasing option would allow the military to take possession of the necessary number of tankers we need right now rather than delaying the full purchase until we have the monies available for such a lump-sum procurement.

The word "old" is not always a synonym for good, just as the word "new" is not always a synonym for bad. While it is true that we have not engaged in leasing plans like this before, it is also true we have never had such a need for continued air superiority and long-distance refueling. The war on terrorism requires innovation, and our military should have the best, most technologically advanced equipment that money can buy.

The American people deserve a procurement policy that is as cost-effective as can be. When it comes to air wars, after all, in order to fight you have to get to the fight first.