The Defense Department is expected to make the award for the much maligned KC-X tanker in the next month, but two experts are trying to impress upon decision makers that any further delay could be catastrophic.
Air Force retired Lt. Gen. Norman Seip said further delay whether because of protests or process could only hasten the unthinkable.
“I think everyone’s worst nightmare is a KC-135 disappears over the mid-Atlantic,” he said yesterday during a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington. “How did it go down? Will we ever find out? And is it because of an aging aircraft, and what does that mean about the risks that we have to do with our sons and daughters flying that aircraft. So that urgency is there.”
Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, a defense analyst and consultant, and author of a new white paper on the tanker saga, said, for one thing, it’s not surprising that both firms are waging a vigorous and raucous battle for the lucrative business.
The Air Force currently is carefully weighing the bids of Boeing and EADS North America for the $39 billion deal to build 179 tankers. In a speech at the National Press Club last month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said an award for the winning design is expected to be made in November.
“This is a tremendous competition between two big firms, the Boeing Company, and EADS North America. And this competition was bound to get loud and noisy, because these two companies compete every day for global sales in the airliner market,” Grant said. “This is just how we would expect them to behave even when they are working on a bid that is helmed by their sedate and better mannered defense sectors.”
Both Boeing and EADS have very vocal supporters in Congress who have been trumpeting the protection and creation of jobs related to the tanker contract when stumping for one company or the other. But in her white paper, Grant suggested that the difference when it comes to jobs might be negligible.
“EADS North America forecasts airliner sales of over 24,000 aircraft between now and the year 2028,” she said. “Boeing touts its 787 as the ‘fastest-selling aircraft in history’. So this is a case where neither bidder is relying on KC-X.”
In her paper, Grant also noted that in its ads, Boeing touts that its KC tanker is made in America, while EADS, a consortium of European aerospace companies is foreign. Grant said history proves this argument to be specious, at best.
“If you go back to World War One,” she told reporters, “Eddie Rickenbacker, the first American ace from that war, flew French aircraft. Today, we see several aircraft that we’re from familiar with from our operations, such as the C-27J light airlifter, the older C-23 Sherpa, the UH-72 Lakota Light Attack helicopter, and the Coast Guard’s HC-144. These are, or started out life as so-called European designs made by Italian companies, or other European companies.”
Grant added that improvements in fuel capacity and advanced avionics technology will make the new tankers — no matter who makes them — more efficient and able to support more and more aircraft. That’s especially vital if the Air Force is forced to fight an air war over the vast Pacific Ocean one day.
The concern about another delay in the award comes from several angles.
Seip, who has been retired from the Air Force in 2009, said his sense of urgency on the issue of a replacement refueling tanker is rooted in his former experience as the commander of the 12th Air Force; deputy commander of air force operations over Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa; and as a former fighter pilot himself. Like many of his latter-day colleagues, Seip said, he has come to rely on the aging fleet of KC-135 tankers, based on the over 50-year old Boeing 707 aircraft.
“Tankers are also the lifeline for our combatant commanders, and for our joint coalition teams out there, and that’s why the KC-X is, and continues to be the Air Force’s number one acquisition priority out there,” he said.
Grant said no matter the outcome of the tanker award dogfight, it’s time to make the award, and move on.
“I think no matter how we look at it, there’s no time to lose,” she said. “We know that the oldest KC-135 is due for some significant structural overhaul in the years 2019 to 2037. The cost for these types of overhaul could boost the bill to maintain the KC 135 force to over $6 billion per year.”
Additionally, she said by that time Air Force technicians will make significant modifications to a 70-year old airframe.