- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Top Pentagon procurement officials on Wednesday issued plans on how to fix the terribly mismanaged contract to purchase America’s next generation of aerial refueling tankers. The new tankers will replace the Eisenhower-era tankers that have flown well-beyond the lifecycle for which they were designed.

This announcement will initiate “Round Three” of the Pentagon’s effort to acquire the new tanker. The original effort, based on the concept of a sole-source lease, was a political and bureaucratic disaster. The second effort was a head-to-head bidding process between American-based Boeing, which proposed a militarized version of its midsize 767 commercial jetliner, and a European consortium known as EADS, which would fit out its much larger French-built Airbus 330 commercial jetliner.

”Round Two” also ended up being a mess. The Air Force selected the larger, French-built Airbus 330, and Boeing immediately protested that decision to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), claiming that the Air Force had engaged in highly irregular practices and judgments that were biased in favor of the French jet.

The GAO report that followed was a devastating critique of the Air Force’s management of the bidding process. Among a multitude of findings, the GAO reported that the Air Force’s decision “was undermined by a number of prejudicial errors” as to the Airbus plane being technologically superior, and found “a number of errors in the agency’s cost evaluation” that were so severe as to reverse the Air Force’s cost assessment, and declare that the Boeing 767, and not the Airbus 330, was the lower-cost aircraft. Translation: The GAO discovered that the Boeing plane was both cheaper and better than the Air Force said it was.

Even more shocking was the GAO finding that the Air Force “conducted misleading and unequal discussions with Boeing with respect to whether it had satisfied a [Request for Proposal] objective under the operational utility area of the key systems requirements.” Translation: The Air Force was telling Boeing one thing, and telling Airbus quite another thing, in a way that favored Airbus and placed Boeing at a decided disadvantage.

Now, thanks to the outstanding reporting of Human Events Online Editor Jed Babbin, a former Pentagon acquisition official, we know that the Airbus 330 is unable to perform at least two maneuvers critical to refueling missions. The first is a “breakaway maneuver,” an emergency procedure which requires the tanker aircraft to accelerate upward, away from the aircraft it is refueling, in the event the two aircraft get too close to one another. The second is an “overrun maneuver,” which requires a tanker to gain altitude and overtake an aircraft that has overshot their intended rendezvous point. The Airbus tanker is reportedly too large and heavy to perform either of these critical maneuvers, leaving many war fighters scratching their heads as to why it was seriously under consideration in the first place.

In response to the devastating GAO report, which demanded that the Air Force rescind its “Round Two” decision favoring Airbus, and correct its many errors, Defense Secretary Robert Gates relieved the Air Force acquisition team of its authority over the contract and placed his own under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, John Young, in charge of “Round Three.”

Will Mr. Young give our war fighters the aircraft they need? Will bureaucratic inertia from the Air Force team that bungled the first two rounds of bidding draw him into the mistaken effort to push for the Airbus 330, despite its obvious flaws? Rumors abound that the Air Force and Mr. Young will stubbornly push for a larger tanker in “Round Three,” despite the fact that a larger-sized tanker is not what the Air Force originally requested, and that it is precisely the obesity of the Airbus 330 that prevents it from properly performing critical emergency maneuvers.

Having represented nearly 3 million veteran war fighters as past national commander of the American Legion, I can tell you that we are united in our devotion to keeping America focused on the needs of today’s war fighters, and to keeping defense-related jobs here in America. The members of the American Legion recently passed a national resolution to “Buy American” in order to demonstrate that this is a serious issue for us and battle we are willing to fight.

Mr. Young and others should listen carefully to the war fighters who will be flying these missions, and not be cowed by bureaucrats who, however well-intentioned, are protecting their turf and defending past mistakes.

America’s uniformed servicemen and women are the best, most professional fighting force the world has ever known. Just as sure as the sun will rise in the east, they will salute and obey the commands of their civilian leadership. The question at hand is whether their civilian leadership shows the same level of professionalism and loyalty in return.

Dominic DiFrancesco, a Korean War veteran, is a former national commander of the American Legion.

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