Air Force gets back tanker contract, Gates's confidence

The defense secretary, in allowing the service to procure its own plane, signals trust that his reforms are taking hold.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday showed he has made headway in his effort to make reforms at the Pentagon when he restored to the Air Force authority to procure its own plane, after stripping it of that power a year ago.

His action will allow the Air Force, which has experienced several black eyes under Mr. Gates's tenure, to once again take charge of finding a contractor to replace its 50-year-old fleet of aerial refuelers, or tankers.

It's a decision that is more than a bureaucratic adjustment, pointing to a broader shift at the Pentagon, where the defense secretary has sought to trim excess, cut ineffective programs, and tighten budget screws. In giving back to the Air Force its authority to conduct the competition to buy its plane, Gates is signaling that he is coming to trust the Defense Department he is helping to reshape.

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Among his reforms so far is a budget plan that cuts many spending programs – including many prominent Air Force ones. He has also made accountability a priority, firing senior officials and military leaders to put his own people in key spots. Some critics suggest he is too hard on the Air Force, in part because he has few Air Force aides and therefore doesn't fully understand its culture.

Others see a service that needed reining in. A year ago, Gates's frustration with the Air Force boiled over, and he snatched away its oversight of the tanker program in a vote of no confidence in the service and its leadership. A government watchdog agency had concluded that the bidding process – in which the multibillion-dollar contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman and its France-based partner EADS over US-based Boeing Co. – was flawed.

That ended a seven-year bid to replace the tanker plane that had been marred by fits and starts, sweetheart deals for defense contractors, nepotism, and, ultimately, jail time for at least one top Air Force official.

Since then, Gates has replaced the Air Force's top uniformed officer and top civilian leader and has begun to inculcate in the service a culture seen by some experts as having more common sense. His announcement that the Air Force would again oversee the competition for the plane, known as the KC-X, indicates that Gates sees his reform efforts as bearing fruit.

"We are committed to the integrity of the selection process and cannot afford the kind of letdowns, parochial squabbles, and corporate food-fights that have bedeviled this effort in the past," Gates said Wednesday during remarks at the Air Force Association annual convention near Washington. "I have confidence that the KC-X selection authority is in good hands with the service's leadership team of Secretary [Michael] Donley and General [Norton] Schwartz."

The Air Force will in coming weeks release its specifications for the kind of plane it wants. Contractors, in turn, will submit bids to build it. Military officials hope it will be in the air in the next few years.

But Gates's move may not satisfy critics of the tanker competition. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, who represents a state where many Boeing jobs reside, worries that the competition is already tilted against Boeing. She cites a World Trade Organization ruling that the European Union is providing illegal subsidies to help the European aerospace firm Airbus, which owns EADS.

"Will the playing field be leveled," she asks, "so that the Air Force purchases the aircraft that not only best meets its requirements [but also] is also a wise use of US taxpayer dollars now and into the future of the KC-X procurement?"

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