Curt LeMay must be spinning in his grave.
The man who built Strategic Air Command into the nation's primary nuclear deterrent force, understood a few things about the weapons acquisition process. Buy the best, buy in sufficient quantities and don't ever divide the contract between multiple firms.
Under his leadership, the Air Force bought more than 700 B-52s and over 800 KC-135s. Remarkably, almost 100 of the venerable bombers are still in service, as are more than 400 of the Eisenhower-era tankers. Both came from a single manufacturer--Boeing--and they are among a handful of aircraft to complete more than 50 years of continuous service.
As LeMay understood, there were inherent advantages in that old-fashioned approach to procurement. Larger "buys" lowered unit costs; awarding the contract to a sole contractor simplified support over the life-cycle of the aircraft. Settling on a single airframe also saved time and money on everything from spare parts to crew training.
My, how times have changed.
Fifty years after the B-52s and KC-135s began arriving in SAC units, the defense establishment is preparing to do the unthinkable, and split the next Air Force tanker contract between two designs, the Boeing KC-767 and the Northrop/Grumman/Airbus KC-30. With Congress hopelessly deadlocked over which aircraft to support, a "split" contract may be the only hope for getting a new refueling platform.
Support for the plan has been building slowly since last year, when the GAO overturned a contract awarded to Northrop-Grumman. But a possible tipping point was reached in recent days, with both Northrop and rival Boeing indicating a willingness to divide the tanker contract.
If Congress goes along--a very real possibility--both firms would split the deal, building 90 aircraft apiece. That will keep the contractors (and politicians) happy, but it promises to create a training and logistics nightmare for the USAF. Both tankers will need their own logistical chain, maintenance network and crew training system. Two different tankers; multiply the support costs by that same number.
It makes absolutely no sense, but the tanker "solution" is a sad reflection of our politicized procurement system. More disturbingly, the split buy will set a terrible precedent for other controversial weapons system. If it succeeds in having it "both ways" with the new tanker, Congress will simply dig in its heels and demand the division of other contracts. Programs that can't be easily split will face cancellation, a la CSAR-X.
Officially, the Pentagon remains committed to a "winner-take-all" competition for the new tanker. But the handwriting for dual sourcing appears to be on the wall. Key Congressman--including Pennsylvania's John Murtha--are lining up behind the idea, and lawmakers may insert language into defense authorization bills to support a split buy.
Whatever his weaknesses as a SecDef, Robert Gates is a master at gauging the prevailing political winds. Mr. Gates knows he can't cancel the new tanker program, and he understands that sole sourcing may be politically impossible. So, don't be surprised if you see two new tankers at Air Force bases in the very near future.