According to Congressional Quarterly, the Obama Administration has directed the Pentagon to delay the purchase of new refueling aircraft for five years, and cancel plans for a new bomber. If that decision holds, it would push delivery of new tankers well into the next decade, significantly delaying the Air Force's number-one acquisition program.
We emphasize the word "if," because members of Congress have already vowed to push back on any tanker deferment. In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Congressman Jo Bonner of Alabama made it clear that additional delays are unacceptable:
The Air Force has consistently said the tanker replacement program is its No. 1 priority. It strains credibility to think a new administration would delay this program five years, denying our military its top equipment need," said Bonner.
"Our nation relies heavily on tankers to project power around the globe, and the average age of our current fleet is 50 years old," Bonner said. "We have been trying to replace these aging aircraft since 2001 – an additional delay would be dangerous to our national security and unsupportable here in Congress. I am hopeful there is no validity to this rumor of an administration delay to this critical program."
One of the contenders for the tanker contract is a Northrop-Grumman entrant (based on an Airbus plane) that would be assembled and modified in Mobile, Ala., part of Mr. Bonner's Congressional district. The Northrop jet is competing against a Boeing tanker, based on its 767 jetliner.
Other sources on Capitol Hill downplayed the report, describing it as part of the "normal" budget process. But call us unconvinced; fact is, efforts to delay (or cancel) the tanker program have been gathering steam in recent months.
As we reported in early January, a recent Congressional Budget Office study recommends deep cuts in defense procurement, saving an estimated $440 billion between 2010 and 2025. Among various options, the report suggests eliminating the next-generation tanker project (KC-X), and using some of that money to refurbish Eisenhower-era KC-135s.
The budget office study is important, for a couple of reasons. First, it satisfies Mr. Obama's desire to cut defense spending by as much as 10% a year. Secondly, the former head of the CBO, Peter Orszag, is now running the Office of Management and Budget, putting him in a powerful position to shape future defense budgets--and implement the recommendations of the study.
Under Mr. Orszag's leadership, the CBO report is emerging as a template for Mr. Obama's defense plans. The study also recommends deep cuts in the Joint Strike Fighter program and limiting--or capping--production of the F-22 Raptor. Air Force officials recently mounted a campaign for 60 additional airframes, which would bring the total inventory to 243.
But sources tell Aviation Week that the service is finding diminished support for the stealth fighter in the Obama Administration. They expect the White House to okay production of 20 additional jets--far below the number requested by the Air Force.
While Pentagon acquisition czar John Young recently a memorandum that keeps all procurement options open, most observers believe that final Raptor totals will be closer to the CBO recommendation (183), than the number wanted by the Air Force (243-331).
Likely cuts in JSF and F-22 production are bad enough, but the tanker delay may represent the worst possible choice. In-flight refueling is a true force multiplier, essential to strike, surveillance and mobility operations around the world.
Further delays in the acquisition process will place a greater strain on existing resources, accelerating the wear and tear on the KC-135 fleet. That, in turn, will drive the retirement of more aging airframes, leaving the military with even fewer tankers to do the job.
ADDENDUM: The Obama decision would be equally devastating for the next-generation bomber. Cancelling the current program would delay a replacement until sometime after 2020. That puts the development--and fielding--of a new bomber aircraft much closer to the planned retirement date of the B-1 and B-2. At that point in the process, there will be even less margin for error.