Thursday, September 4, 2003

The Senate seems to have trouble deciding whether to acquire America’s needed military refueling planes from America’s Boeing Co. or France’s (and other Europeans’) Airbus. The Senate Armed Forces Committee yesterday delayed a decision on whether or not to authorize the U.S. Air Force’s deal to lease and later buy as many as 100 Boeing 767s to update its deteriorating tankers. The sooner this lease is approved by the Senate the better. While many believe America’s armed forces need to be larger, there is no debate over whether we need to expand our tanker fleet. Many of the current aircraft date back to 1957. In this year’s war in Iraq, American flyers were forced to depend on British tankers to refuel during missions. It is dangerous for the world’s only superpower to have to rely on any other nation for basic military hardware, especially during a relatively small war.

There is no question about the dilapidated state of the current fleet. According to the Defense Department, as much as 40 percent of our refueling planes are grounded for repairs on a regular basis. A typical maintenance cycle means the tankers are in the shop and not in the air for approximately a year at a time. One proposal would stick the Air Force with the current fleet until 2040, which exceeds the intended 25-year life expectancy of the original KC-135s by decades. This would be dangerous and costly. Not only would ongoing updates and upkeep for these old aircraft mean increasingly longer shop stays, but the Air Force has estimated 37 more years of the KC-135s would cost approximately $18 billion over already existing bills for their maintenance. And they would still be flying dinosaurs.

Sen. John McCain, the majority member with the second-highest seniority on the Armed Forces Committee, is dead-set against the Air Force’s deal with Boeing. Tagging the proposed lease a “military-industrial rip-off” and “an unsavory deal,” he compared the allegedly close relationship between the Air Force and Boeing as “an Enron entity.” An alternative is to buy tankers from Airbus, which has bid for the contract. Two days ago, Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat, said she thought the “American people and our war fighters would want U.S. Air Force tankers that are made by American workers and suppliers.” More to the point, Americans might not want to send taxpayer funds to the French government, which is a major backer of Airbus. The Air Force also has predicted that Airbus purchases would set back tanker replacement by years.

Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, yesterday suggested that the Pentagon come up with a more modest lease scheme. A new arrangement could include leasing fewer aircraft and buying more of them up front, which could save some money. But it likely would delay the pressing update of the tanker fleet. The last hurdle to getting new tankers in the air is the Senate Armed Services Committee; three other committees in Congress have already given it the stamp of approval. Hammering out a new contract proposal and then restarting the legislative process takes time. The best way to make sure our military pilots have the best refueling capability is to approve the already existing agreement between the Air Force and Boeing.

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