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This time, let’s have a non-botched tanker decision

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
February 15, 2011 4:25 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The third time’s a charm – we devoutly hope – with the Air Force’s snake-bit effort to replace its ancient KC-135 aerial refueling tankers.

Last Thursday, The Boeing Co. and its archrival European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. submitted yet another pair of bids for the $35 billion-plus contract to build America’s next tanker. The Pentagon expects to pick a winner fairly quickly, perhaps in a matter of weeks.

Anticipation is high, and not just because of the money and jobs at stake. No one can be quite sure the Air Force won’t blow this decision once more.

Aerial refueling is the linchpin of most of America’s global military operations, and it is approaching the breaking point.

The oldest KC-135s rolled out more than a half century ago, when color television was a rare novelty. The military was supposed to start getting new planes five years ago.

But the first attempt to award the contract collapsed in a corruption scandal, and the second fell apart in 2008 when auditors discovered that the Air Force had made billion-dollar blunders when it awarded the work to EADS.

EADS is the parent company of Airbus; the competing tanker designs are militarized versions of the Airbus’ A330 and Boeing’s 767.

This time around, the Air Force – under the personal oversight of Defense Secretary Robert Gates – has come up with a more credible-looking path to its decision.

Both planes were required to meet 372 objective specifications – fuel load, range, runway requirements and the like. It’s a pass-fail system: The designs get credit if they meet a particular specification but not extra credit if they surpass it.

That’s critically important. In the last round, for example, the Air Force spelled out how much fuel it wanted the aircraft to carry. Boeing’s design met that goal; Airbus’ exceeded it – and that helped tip the decision toward Airbus.

The problem is, it takes a bigger, heavier jet to deliver the additional fuel capacity, yet the military rarely needs as much fuel as even the 767 would carry. The A330 tanker would cost billions more to operate over the 40-year-lifespan of the new fleet – billions that the Pentagon would put to far better use on something it actually needed.

The other problem is that the Air Force never said the additional capacity would be a factor. Boeing discovered only after the fact that it was playing in a game that had been invisibly rigged against it.

The new system appears to leave far less room for gaming. Both designs meet those 372 pass-fail requirements. They’ll face three additional tests – including lifespan fuel costs – then will be chosen or rejected on the basis of price. Only if the prices are virtually the same will the Air Force start looking at “nice to have” extras.

Still, the Air Force has already proven its ability to royally botch this contract. At this point, the Boeing and Airbus designs aren’t in nearly as much doubt as the people charged with buying one of them.

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