Troubled Air Force tanker program halted
Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls the aircraft procurement effort too flawed to continue.
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But the decision is undoubtedly a loss for an Air Force, which, among other problems, has been pushing to replace its fleet of 50-year-old tanker planes since 2001.Skip to next paragraph
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This week's announcement is one in a series of setbacks that included the hugely controversial tanker lease deal the Air Force made with Boeing four years ago that led to jail time for top Boeing and Air Force officials.
"The brutal truth is that we really, really need a new tanker, as unglamorous as they may be," says one senior Air Force official, noting that there is consensus throughout the Pentagon that the service needs the new plane in order to have "a truly global force."
"No matter what kind of conflict you're waging, you need tankers," says this source.
Despite the pressing need to buy new tankers, defense officials say the current fleet in fact can continue to fly. Sources say that top defense acquisition officials convinced Gates that the current fleet of tankers, used to conduct aerial refueling, a staple of logistics operations, could continue to safely operate.
'Reality check' on procurement
"This pause is a reality check on a procurement process that got very complicated and a little muddled," said Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, in whose state thousands of affected Boeing workers live. "It gives the Pentagon enough time to work with our warfighters to meet their needs and get this done right."
The Air Force's other problems, including failures in its safeguarding of nuclear weapons that led to the unprecedented firings of its top two officials earlier this year, have left the service "politically neutered," says Tom Ehrhard, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Ehrhard, a retired Air Force strategist, doesn't believe the service's acquisition department is the "single point failure" in the imbroglio. But he says the service will nonetheless have to address the acquisition department's woes to restore its credibility.
The Defense Department has taken much of the acquisition authority away from the service over the years, including decisionmaking about the tanker this summer, and should now give it back to enable the Air Force to make the necessary changes, says Ehrhard. "This delay oddly could be an opportunity for [the office of the Secretary of Defense] to do the right thing here and get the Air Force back to its rightful position."