Troubled Air Force tanker program halted

Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls the aircraft procurement effort too flawed to continue.

Northrop Grumman Corp./AP/FILE
Grounded: Delaying the US Air Force tanker contract leaves the politically-charged decision to the next administration. In this artist's depiction, a KC-45A refuels a B-2 stealth bomber.

Once again, there is no joy for the Air Force.

The most recent delay in the service's bid to procure a new tanker means it could take three more years for the service to see a new refueling plane. And by that time, say experts in Washington, the Air Force will have had to completely revamp its flawed acquisition program blamed for years of delays in what the service says is its most critical purchase.

"It's like we're starting over," says Loren Thompson, a senior analyst at the Lexington Institute, a public policy group in Arlington, Va., adding that the service must now enter a phase of extreme introspection.

"The Air Force so thoroughly fouled up the acquisition of the next generation tanker that it has raised broader questions about the acquisition community," he says.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise announcement that he is canceling altogether the $35 billion contract to replace the Air Force's fleet of tankers, a move that put defense giants Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman back at Square 1.

The move came after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a controversial set of recommendations earlier this summer saying that the Air Force's original decision to award the contract for 179 new tankers to Northrop Grumman and its partner, France-based EADS, was flawed.

Mr. Gates then took the acquisition authority away from the Air Force and put the contract out to be re-bid before announcing Wednesday that it would be canceled completely.

In announcing the decision, Gates said the contract had become "enormously complex and emotional," in part due to mistakes and missteps by the Defense Department that left no time for both companies to provide new designs by a December deadline.

Next administration must decide

"The resulting 'cooling off' period will allow the next administration to review objectively the military requirements and craft a new acquisition strategy for the KC-X," Gates said in a statement, referring to the tanker's generic model name.

The move was widely seen as a win for Boeing, which may have had to drop out of the contest anyway because it did not have enough time to provide a design by the end of the year.

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.

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."

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