The Air Force got a bit of needed good news late last week, when the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the nominations of Generals Norton Schwartz and Duncan McNabb. Schwartz has been selected to service as the next Air Force Chief of Staff; General McNabb, the current Vice Chief of Staff, will become the new leader of U.S. Transportation Command, replacing Schwartz.
But there is a dark cloud surrounding that silver line. Another member of the "new" Air Force leadership team may be in limbo, thanks to Washington Senator Maria Cantwell. According to Congress Daily (as reported at DoD Buzz), Ms. Cantwell has told Defense Secretary Robert Gates that she may place a hold on the nomination of prospective Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
What does Cantwell have against Donley? Nothing personal, you understand; it's just that Ms. Cantwell believes the Air Force "hasn't recognized the flaws in the tanker acquisition process." And until they recognize those problems, the thinking goes, Mr. Donley may be denied a confirmation vote in the Senate.
No one would ever accuse Maria Cantwell of being one of the Senate's brightest bulbs, but she knows how the game is played. And, as you'd expect from a politician representing Washington state, Cantwell is solidly behind Boeing and its bid to win the tanker contract. Her promise to delay (or derail) the Donley nomination isn't a threat, per se, but it is a reminder that Boeing and its Congressional backers have plenty of clout--and a long memory.
The message is clear; the next round in the bidding process should be more transparent, with clearly-defined requirements that give Boeing a shot at winning the contract. Readers will recall that the last round in the competition resulted in Boeing and Northrop-Grumman offering two very different airplanes; a medium-sized refueler (in the case of Boeing's 767), and a larger aircraft, embodied by the latter team's Airbus A330. While the Air Force favored the Northrop-Grumman entry, that contract was overturned, after a successful protest by Boeing.
Boeing--and its supporters--have every right to demand clearly defined requirements, and transparency in the acquisition process. But playing acquisition politics with the Donley nomination is grossly unfair; at a time when the Air Force needs a solid leader as its secretary, the man nominated to fill that post finds himself in limbo, largely because Boeing and one of its key Congressional sponsors want to make a point.
Cantwell's ploy is yet another remind of how politicized the defense acquisition process has become. Making matters worse, if the Donley nomination is delayed or scuttled, it will only embolden Congress to make similar plays in the future. There's bound to be a senior DoD official up for confirmation when the CSAR-X contract is decided. Woe to the nominee that may face a Senator from a state with ties to the losing team.
The Pentagon's political appointees deserve a straight, up-or-down vote on confirmation, without the sideshow theatrics that Ms. Cantwell is threatening. Sadly, this isn't the first time that a sitting Senator has threatened such tactics--and it won't be the last.