At first blush, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had plenty of reasons to cancel the Air Force tanker competition, at least for now.
As Mr. Gates notes, with the Bush Administration leaving office in January, it's more appropriate for the next Pentagon leadership team to select the USAF's new tanker--a decision that will affect air and mobility operations for decades to come. Better to let a fresh set of eyes take a look at the requirement, make the decision and live with it--rather than being saddled with their predecessor's decision.
And, the SecDef is correct in his observation that the tanker competition has become entirely too political. Regardless of who wins the next round in the bidding wars--whenever that happens--there will be a protest by the losing team, and plenty of meddling by politicians who support the competing firms, Boeing and Northrop-Grumman.
In fact, Boeing threatened to pull out of the competition a few weeks ago, claiming it needed more time to prepare its bid. Never mind that the Air Force's search for a new tanker has dragged on for more than five years, and Boeing's "new" entry will almost certainly be based on the same 767 airframe offered in previous round.
Indeed, the company's request for more time was widely viewed as a political ploy, aimed at delaying the decision until after the next president takes office. Boeing is betting heavily that an Obama Administration would favor it's "American" design over the Airbus-built airframe being offered by Northrop-Grumman.
Still, Mr. Gates's decision to postpone the decision should be viewed with disappointment, the bureaucratic equivalent of kicking the can down the road. Will the political environment for the tanker choice improve after a new administration takes office? Pul-eeze. Is the losing firm less likely to protest the decision under a new Secretary of Defense or Commander-in-Chief? The answer to that one is painfully obvious.
Meanwhile, the new refueling aircraft that the Air Force so desperately needs will be further delayed. Assuming that the new airframe was selected by the Bush Administration--and subsequent protests could be quickly resolved--then new tankers would enter operational service by 2013. Under the "new" timetable, it looks like tanker squadrons won't receive replacement aircraft until 2015 or 2016, at the earliest.
Over the next seven years, we can only wonder how many additional, older KC-135s will have to be grounded because they've reached the end of their service life. We're written before about aging "E" model tankers that are no longer airworthy, but still sit on the ramp, wasting parking space, manpower and maintenance dollars. The number of grounded refuelers will only grow while Congress, the White House and industry squabble over the next tanker contract.
All defense leaders leave unfinished business for their successors. But, by temporarily cancelling the tanker competition, Mr. Gates created more headaches for the next SecDef, and created another, unacceptable delay in producing a new refueling platform for our armed forces. For a defense chief who's been hailed as "tough" and "visionary" during his time in office, Mr. Gates behaved like an ordinary bureaucrat in delaying the tanker choice.