Worst Idea of the Week, Redux
Call it Spook's First Law of Defense Procurement: Bad ideas don't improve over time, particularly when they involve (1) Members of Congress; (2) Billions of your tax dollars and (3) A critical military acquisition program.
Case in point: The Air Force's next-generation tanker program. As readers of this blog--and other defense forums--are painfully aware, the service's efforts to field new air refueling planes has been mired in scandal and partisan bickering for most of this decade. The first attempt, a lease deal with Boeing, was scuttled after it was revealed that the USAF's senior acquisition official had secured employment guarantees for herself (and members of her family) with the defense contractor.
More recently, a contract with Northrop-Grumman and its European partner, EADS, was cancelled after the Government Accountability Officer upheld a protest from Boeing. Both teams are now in the process of submitting new bids, but regardless of who wins, there will almost certainly be a new round of protests and delays.
That means that Air Force tanker units won't be getting new aircraft until 2013--at the earliest. Meanwhile, the service has grounded a number of its older KC-135s, which rolled off the Boeing assembly line during the Eisenhower Administration. As more tankers reach retirement age, the USAF will find it more difficult to sustain air refueling mission, a critical component of combat and mobility operations worldwide.
How to resolve the tanker impasse? A growing number of defense officials and analysts believe the only solution is a "split buy," purchasing equal numbers of new refueling aircraft from Boeing and Northrop-Grumman/EADS.
As Amy Butler of Aviation Week reports, the split buy option will be a topic of conversation when Pennsylvania Congressman Jack Murtha visits the Alabama plant where the Northrop-Grumman tanker would be built. Murtha's endorsement is considered essential in mustering Congressional support for the split buy option.
So far, the King of Defense Pork has not revealed his position on the issue. But convincing Congressman Murtha and his colleagues may not be difficult. In the early stages of a recession, no politician wants any part of a decision that would elminiate thousands of high-paying aerospace jobs, many of them filled by union members.
That's why officials close to the tanker program say dual sourcing by is the "only politically palatable way" to move forward. Under the split buy approach, Boeing and Northrop-Grumman would build 90 tankers each, creating (or saving) more than 80,000 defense jobs across the country.
What exactly will the Air Force--and taxpayers--be getting for their money? While buying tankers from two different contractors will win support on Capitol Hill (and in places like Mobile, Alabama and Seattle), dual sourcing is a terrible idea, for a number of reasons.
First, there's the issue of unit cost. Buying fewer aircraft from a particular supplier drives up the price tag. The B-2 became a billion dollar bomber because the projected purchase dropped from 132 aircraft, to only 21. Both the Boeing and Northrop-Grumman tankers are based on commercial airliners, but the same production rules apply. Buying 90 aircraft from one contractor and the same number from another will raise the project's cost well beyond the current $40 billion dollars.
Still, the duplication doesn't end there. To support two different tankers, the USAF will be required to create two aircrew training programs, and separate schools for technicians who will maintain the Boeing aircraft and those assigned to the Northrop-Grumman jet.
Keeping the new tankers will require different maintenance and logistics systems, and a major re-working of operational plans. The twin-engine KC-767 (based on the Boeing airliner) and the Northrop-Grumman tanker (built on the Airbus A330) have different offload capabilities, cargo capacities and operational "footprints." In some situations, the KC-767 can operate from forward airfields that can't handle the larger Airbus. On the other hand, the Northrop-Grumman entry is better suited for some longer-range missions.
At least one key official has expressed opposition to the split buy option. In a recent interview with Aviation Week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that buying both tankers would "greatly complicate" the Air Force's life, leaving the service with four different refueling aircraft in the inventory (the USAF plans to retain some KC-135s along with the KC-10s it purchased in the 1980s). As Dr. Gates observed, the multiple training, logistics and maintenance systems would quickly become an expensive "nightmare."
Unfortunately, that reality doesn't exactly square with Washington politics--and the reality of today's hyper-partisan defense procurement process. Fact is, the "split buy" idea has been around for some time. It surfaced several years ago, when the Pentagon suggested successive rounds of tanker purchases, under programs dubbed KC-X and KC-Y. That idea was quickly shelved, in favor of a single "buy" for 179 tankers, provided by a single vendor.
But the dual purchase proposal made a comeback last summer, after the Northrop-Grumman contract was cancelled. Former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne--a veteran of years in the defense industry--suggested that a split buy might be the only option. As the economy declines (and political pressures build), support for the "two tanker" scheme has only grown.
Purchasing different refueling aircraft from both Boeing and Northrop-Grumman is simply unfathomable, but apparently, it's an idea whose time has come. It's a testament to a broken defense procurement system and the politics of defense pork. Forty billion dollars is too much money to ignore; that's why a growing number of folks--in the Pentagon, the defense industry and on Capitol Hill--are willing to saddle the Air Force with an additional tanker it doesn't need, and stick taxpayers with the bill.