Tuesday, June 07, 2005

John McCain's Crusade

For more than three years, Senator John McCain has been on a crusade against the U.S. Air Force. The service incurred the senator's wrath back in 2002, when it proposed leasing KC-767 tanker aircraft from Boeing, rather than simply purchasing them. McCain described the lease as too expensive, and claimed that the KC-767 would not meet military requirements.

McCain's opposition to the tanker lease grew more vocal when it was discovered that a Boeing executive (Michael Sears) and the Air Force's senior contracting officer (Darlene Drunyun) conspired to deliver the lease to Boeing, in violation of government acquisition and contracting regulations. In exchange for her efforts, Ms. Drunyun was given a $250,000-a-year job, along with continued employment for her daughter and son-in-law. Both Ms. Drunyun and Mr. Sears are currently serving federal prison sentences.

While taxpayers should credit Senator McCain for helping expose the fraudulent lease deal, they should also ask this question: has the senator's crusade against the Air Force and Boeing turned into a personal obsession that is now jeopardizing the day-to-day operations of the USAF? Three years into his campaign, it seems evident that McCain's crusade is as more about the senator's political ambitions and military partisanship as an effort at acquisition reform.

Consider the most recent "revelation" in the tanker scandal. Today's Washington Post has excerpts from the Pentagon's Inspector General's report on the tanker deal. The report is based, in part, on e-mail exchanges between senior defense officials involved in the tanker lease. One describes the deal as a "bailout" for Boeing. Another defense official comments that "numbers were contorted" to justify the lease. The report also concludes that four top Air Force officials and former Undersecretary of Defense Pete Aldridge violated procurement rules, failed to use "best business practices" and ignored requirements for weapons testing.

That report is expected to be Exhibit A at today's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on defense procurement problems. But before Senator McCain climbs onto his soapbox, it's beneficial to put the report--and the tanker lease--in its proper context.

First of all, the Air Force has a clear need for new tanker aircraft, used to refuel other planes in flight. Most of the Air Force's KC-135 tankers were built in the late 1950s or early 1960s and despite modifications, they are reaching the end of their service life, and need to be replaced. Secondly, leasing is a common and widely accepted practice in the Defense Department and commercial aviation. In exchange for leasing the KC-767s, the Air Force would receive extensive maintenance and logistical support from Boeing, at substantially reduced costs. Over a 30 or 40-year service life, leasing might actually save the Air Force money; however, over a shorter period, the lease would be more expensive than simply purchasing the aircraft. The savings--or potential excessive costs--are largely a matter of how you crunch the numbers.

Thirdly, Senator McCain has allowed his "investigation" to evolve into contracting witch hunt, that has hampered Air Force leadership and the service's long-term operations. A few months back, Senator McCain asked the Air Force to release more than 800,000 e-mails, convinced that there was a larger conspiracy behind the tanker deal. McCain also refused to support the nomination of senior Air Force officers to new positions, including General Gregory Martin as the next commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM). General Martin, who now heads the Air Force Material Command, withdrew his name from consideration after McCain hinted that Martin might somehow be involved in the tanker conspiracy.

Judging from today's report, it appears that McCain's claims were unfounded, and Martin's career was torpedoed unfairly. In fact, the only connection between Martin and Drunyun is that they once worked in the same office in the Pentagon. Would McCain now support Martin's nomination for CINCPAC? I doubt it. Will he apologize to General Martin? I rather doubt that, too. In his rush to judgement on the tanker lease, McCain was more than willing to tar anyone that popped up on his radar scope.

But the list of collateral damage from McCain's crusade doesn't end there. The appointments of several senior officers remain in limbo; a number of civilian officials, including former Air Force Secretary James Roche have been forced out because they were also tainted by the tanker scandal. And, it's important to note that none of the officials listed in the Inspector General report are facing criminal charges. In that regard, the contracting scandal resembles the Abu Ghraib affair: the actual wrong-doing was committed by a very few, while Congresssional and media critics try to implicate other officials. Meanwhile, the Air Force is facing a leadership crisis, with a number of key vacancies in its upper ranks that have not been filled, largely due to John McCain's petulance.

Sadly, there are signs that Senator McCain is prepared to fight on, like Capt Queeg's search for those missing strawberries in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. According to Rowan Scarborough of the Washington Times, Pentagon insiders view the nomination of the new Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Mosley, as a test case for McCain. In recent months, the Arizona Senator has blocked appointments for senior AF officers, in an effort to obtain more information on the cancelled tanker lease. McCain may well stonewall General Mosley's nomination as well, as he continues his obsession.

One final thought: some of the accusations in the Inspector General report seem specious and selective, at best. The lobbying for the tanker lease is, in many respects, similar to the arm-twisting that accompanies virtually every major weapons purchase. Every few years, the Navy's "carrier mafia" makes the rounds in D.C., pushing for more carriers for our fleet. The lobbyists include defense officials, senior naval officers, representatives of Newport News Shipbuilding, and other friends of the service, including folks like John McCain. It's a a little shady, but (sadly) that's the way things are done in Washington. So far, Senator McCain has been conspiciously silent on other procurement programs, including those of the Navy.

It's also worth noting that claims about the lack of testing program for the KC-767 are largely without merit. The KC-767 is hardly a "paper program;" Boeing is already building 767 airframe tankers for Japan and Italy, with first delivery to the Italian Air Force in 2006. Extensive testing has already been accomplished in support of those programs. Given that reality, it made little sense for the USAF to embark on a similar testing program for a tanker that would be virtually identical to its Italian and Japanese counterparts.

But the tanker scandal seems destined to live on, thanks to Senator McCain. The Air Force won't get the tankers it needs, but the endless round of hearings and e-mail requests will keep the Senator on the front page of the papers, demonstrate his "independence" from the White House, and score more brownie points with his friends in the press. Afterall, 2008 is just around the corner, and John McCain wouldn't be the first to use an exaggerated scandal for political purposes.

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