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A Cash for Clunkers Program for the Air Force

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
When the White House and Congress wanted to take old cars off the road and replace them with newer models, they passed "Cash for Clunkers."

However, when it comes to the clunkers in America's military aircraft, things are quite a bit different. For more than a decade, Congress has wrangled with how to replace our aging fleet of aerial refueling tankers. The planes that provide much-needed in-flight fuel to military aircraft have been in circulation since 1957. Yet, despite the desperate need for an upgrade, political gamesmanship has delayed the Air Force from trading them in.

While they are not the supersonic fighter planes glamorized in movies, the Air Force simply could not do its job without these tankers.

Like the efficient new sedan that was supposed to replace the old clunker, the goal of upgrading the tanker should be to replace aging equipment and obsolete technology with a better, more efficient design, at a reasonable cost and timeframe. Unfortunately, neither goal is currently being met.

In a move that has since been overturned by the General Accountability Office, the Air Force procurement office announced last year that it would award the contract to build the new tanker fleet to a European firm EADS, working with American-based Northrop Grumman, that had never built a tanker, instead of American-based Boeing. This decision ignored input from "warfighters" on the actual core mission of the tanker, and according to the GAO, changed the requirements for the bids in mid-process while keeping Boeing in the dark about these changes.

GAO upheld a Boeing protest of the contract award last summer. In the midst of a presidential election year, the bidding process was set back yet another year with the Pentagon setting a deadline of Oct. 1 for a new, "final" decision.

Already well behind schedule, the Air Force needs to salvage the situation by deciding on selection criteria based on the best advice of our warfighters, not politicians. Then, they need to select the most capable company to build the most capable aircraft.

Simply put, Boeing has been building America's aerial refueling tankers since 1957 and can start building our new tanker without further delays. EADS and its American partners will need to build and equip a factory then hire and train a work force before it can actually start building a tanker - a process that will take several additional years.

Most warfighters believe that the Boeing tanker is also better suited to the core mission. Its Boeing 767 airframe is smaller and lighter than the oversized EADS Airbus 330 tanker, making it more maneuverable in the air and allowing it to take off and land in up to 20 percent more airfields worldwide. Fewer usable airfields would increase the time our military aircraft would need to remain in the air waiting to be refueled, potentially jeopardizing both mission objectives and pilot safety. However, if the Air Force ends up rebidding the tanker contract with cargo capacity as an additional criterion, Boeing has put forth its 777. The 777 can not only fulfill that role, but is so much lighter and has such a greater range than the Airbus 330 that it virtually renders the Airbus 330 obsolete.

And as a former Marine, I can tell you that close air support is something every soldier counts on. So, getting a fleet of tankers that is most capable of being in the right place at the right time is the warfighters' bottom line. The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker has been serving our nation for more than 50 years - the last being purchased by the Air Force in 1965. If it were a car, President Barack Obama and Congress would be tripping over themselves to get it off the road and replaced with the very best solution the auto industry has to offer.

The same urgency and prudence should be afforded the refueling tanker.

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