Tuesday, September 2, 2003

When Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain opens a hearing today on an Air Force proposal to lease 100 Boeing 767 tanker aircraft, he will cast himself as a defender of the public interest against wasteful defense spending. It is, therefore, no small irony that this hearing — and the dilatory, many-months-long process it culminates, is the real waste of time and energy, to the detriment of the national security.

After all, as members of the Commerce Committee surely know, most Americans understand full well the nature of leasing. Tens of millions of them have taken advantage of this practice to make use immediately of cars and other products that they could not otherwise afford to buy for some time, if ever.

The commercial aviation industry has also employed this approach to fleet modernization for years. It is a prime example of the sort of Best Business Practices that the Bush-Rumsfeld team has been trying to use to maximize the Pentagon’s proverbial bang-for-the-procurement buck.

In particular, the centerpiece of Mr. McCain’s criticism of the Pentagon’s tanker acquisition initiative — the contention that it will cost somewhat more to lease these planes (with an opportunity to buy them later) than it would to purchase them immediately — will hardly surprise either the consumers or businesspeople the Senate Commerce Committee is supposed to serve. They appreciate that this is the way leases generally work. They also know, though, that if the money is not available to buy a needed product in the near-term, leasing is often the only way it can be obtained, usually with the desirable effect enhancing an individual American’s safety, productivity and/or quality of life or improving the competitiveness of U.S. companies.

Rarely has an acquisition been more necessary, however, than is the case with aerial-refueling tankers. Such aircraft are the sine qua non of U.S. power projection. As the recent efforts to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq have underscored, the rapid and sustained deployment of American forces to the world trouble-spots depends heavily on airlift. Airlift, in turn, depends critically on tankers. Shortfalls in the tanker fleet very rapidly translate, literally, into an inability to support the troops.

Unfortunately, such shortfalls are currently acute and projected to become even more so in the years ahead. The average age of the existing tanker fleet is some 40 years old, making many of the KC-135 aircraft that continue to be the backbone of the refueling inventory older than their pilots. A third are in the hanger for repairs at any given time. And even when they are flying, their performance is severely limited.

In short, the need for modernization of the KC-135 fleet has been obvious for years and the virtues of accomplishing it via the modified 767 are equally so.

Yet, for too long, a succession of administrations and Congresses have chosen to put off to the future the daunting task of funding such an upgrade program. Evidently, some foolishly believe that this continues to be a responsible and safe thing to do.

The good news is that the common sense and hard experience of most Americans — and solid majorities of the four congressional defense committees (three of whom have already approved the Air Force lease; the fourth, the Senate Armed Services Committee, is expected to do so on Thursday) — enables them to appreciate the folly of perpetuating such a practice. They recognize that tankers, like old cars, computers, manufacturing machinery and expensive household items, tend to be less reliable than new ones. Certainly, the costs of maintaining the former greatly exceed the latter.

Not surprisingly, critics of the Air Force’s tanker lease proposal tend to ignore the costs entailed in keeping the oldest KC-135s operational. This may help their analysis, but it does not reflect reality. If, instead of using new 767 airframes over the next 10 years, the Pentagon has to try to keep the oldest of its tankers safe and serviceable, the price tag will be staggering. By some estimates, it could run as high as $5 billion.

The real world requires that such additional costs be taken into account in any net assessment of leasing tankers versus preserving the status quo. When such costs are considered, the argument for a lease is a slam-dunk. That is even more true when augmented by such considerations as the enormous operational advantages of quickly securing the use of higher-performing tankers.

Of course, the cost-avoidances described above could also be achieved were we simply to purchase the needed tankers outright and they could be delivered right away. But neither Mr. McCain nor anyone else in Congress seems willing to provide the additional billions of dollars that would be needed up front in order to buy, rather than lease, these aircraft. Even if they did, it will take years longer to get new, rather than modified 767s. As a result, the alternative to the lease currently on the table is to condemn our servicemen and women to a no-kidding Mission Impossible — waging a global war on terror without the aerial-refueling assets indispensable to defeating the myriad enemies who wish to do us harm.

As the legislative branch works to help President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld “transform” the U.S. military in order to fight and win the nation’s 21st century wars, there are few actions Congress can take that will have a greater, near-term transformative effect than would its approval this week of the lease of 100 new tankers. The American people surely understand the transaction that will make such an acquisition possible. They are unlikely, however, to comprehend — or forgive — further, unwarranted interference with its prompt execution.

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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