- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

Two months from Election Day, politics seem to be everywhere we turn. However, one place we should not see politics is in our Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition process. The process to select the new Air Force tanker fleet has become so politicized that DoD allowed parochial and business interests to keep the Air Force’s top acquisition priority from the pilots who need it. The long fight over the tanker contract proves that the acquisition process is fundamentally and significantly flawed.

This was a blatant, politically motivated decision, driven by the political and emotional hysteria generated by members of Congress who wanted Boeing to win no matter what. They were more concerned with jobs in their states than U.S. war fighters’ needs.

After a grueling but fair, open and transparent competition, the Air Force in February awarded the contract for its new fleet of air refueling tankers to the Northrop Grumman/EADS team, beating the overwhelming favorite, Boeing. From the outset of the competition, political furor was sure to ensue if the Northrop/EADS team won the contract. It did, and the intended result was achieved: On Sept. 10, 2008, DoD canceled the entire program. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ decision to cancel the Air Force’s number one acquisition priority outright, however, clearly placed politics and business interests above the interests of the war fighter. While Mr. Gates may characterize it as a “cooling off” period because of all of the political rhetoric, the exact opposite is true. Politics just cancelled a competitively awarded contract, solely because Boeing was not the winner. Defense acquisition policy has been stated: If it is not a Boeing plane, DoD is not going to buy it.

Recall that a 2003 lease for 100 Boeing airplanes was rescinded after the discovery that the procurement process was rife with corruption - costing taxpayers more to lease the planes than to buy them. This lease scandal sent Boeing and Air Force officials to prison for rigging the contract.

When this latest competition began in 2007, there was no uproar over a full and open competition for any company that could build a tanker. No politician complained or wailed that the Europeans might win the contract or that the process was unfair to Boeing. No one grabbed a podium or scheduled a press conference to declare that the tanker contract should be a sole source to Boeing. Why? Because everyone believed that Boeing would win, no doubt about it.

The moment the Northrop Grumman/EADS team was awarded the contract, however, the political mania began. If the Air Force and members of Congress wanted the tanker to be nothing more than a job-creation program for Boeing, they should have forgone a competition and sole-sourced the contract in the first place. Now, they just may have gotten their wish.

It is unacceptable that DoD is abdicating its responsibility to ensure our war fighters have the best equipment possible. The objective was to acquire the best new tanker for the Air Force.

In a lengthy, full and open competition, it was determined that the Northrop Grumman/EADS aircraft is the best tanker to meet the Air Force’s needs. And it was determined by those who will fly it. The focus of the competition was on what is the best plane, not where it is built. Boeing supporters should not lie to the American people about what they did and why. It had nothing to do with concern about exporting jobs and technology to Europe.

This time, it was blatantly politics and home-state business. It is now clear that acquiring the best tanker for the war fighter was less important than saving Boeing jobs.

Boeing supporters and the secretary of defense have clearly lost sight of the fact that this country is at war. The issue remains that our armed forces need a new tanker, and they have needed it for a long time.

We are now jeopardizing the safety and security of our nation and those who fight for it simply because politics trumped logic, fairness and concern for the troops.

Terminating the tanker competition sent a clear message - that competition is fine, as long as Boeing wins. The secretary of defense made the wrong decision, and he made it for the wrong reason.

We must now move past politics. We need to put business interests aside and acquire the best plane for our armed forces. Our war fighters deserve nothing less.

Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, is a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

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