A new chapter in the long-running soap opera to decide who will build the next generation of aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force appears to be in the offing. However, to call it a “decision” is a bit of a misnomer. More apt is an analogy to a boxing match in which one of the two boxers just fails to come out for the next round-in this case, it’s Northrop-Grumman/EADS that appears to be tossing in the towel. Objecting to both the fixed-price nature of the proposed 18-year long contract and the requirements set out in the Pentagon’s “request for proposals,” Northrop has told the Pentagon it will not participate in the competition if the RFP remains as-is.
But again, it’s something of a misnomer to have ever called the tanker contest a “competition.” From day one, what DoD and the Air Force were dealing with were bids that looked more like apples and oranges than different kinds of apples. Northrop and EADS were offering up a tanker based on the Airbus 330, while Boeing was planning a tanker that would use the airframe of its 767. These are not comparable planes, with the 330 being considerably larger than the 767. Designing a “competition” between the two, as mandated by Congress, was a virtual impossibility from the get-go and, hence, why every time an RfP has been put forward it has been seen (and rightly so) as inherently favoring one plane over the other. Put simply, if the premium was on how much a tanker could carry and what else it could do, then the larger Airbus was obviously the winner. On the other hand, if the issue was operational flexibility and cost performance, then the smaller Boeing plane had to be the pick. But designing a competition where the primary virtues of both could be equally assessed was an impossibility — a circle that could not be squared.
Presumably, N-G/EADS has stated it is willing to pull out of the competition because, as things stand now, the RFP’s priority requirements can’t be reconciled with its larger platform, and the company perhaps hopes that by threatening to do so it can force Congress to intervene. Its best hope would probably be that Congress would force the Air Force to split the buy in half. However, given the budget problems facing the service, and the stronger lobbying position of Boeing within the Congress among the majority party, this seems like a long shot at best.
All of this, of course, ignores the basic and more important question of what, in fact, is the right buy. Here, there are plenty of arguments to go around and, while I personally would put a premium on operational flexibility, by no means am I expert enough to say definitely what the right answer is. But, one thing is clear: enough is enough. It has been seven years since the Air Force began the process of trying to replace its old, indeed ancient, KC-135 Stratotankers…otherwise known as the military version of the Boeing 707. Needless to say, the planes are not getting any younger, and they are being pushed well beyond what any air flight-safety manager would ever in his right mind agree to. Sometimes, as Alexander Hamilton said, “decisiveness is wisdom.” When it comes to the tanker competition, this is no less true. Let’s choose and get on with it.
Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.