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Tanker calculus: How long can the Air Force wait for new planes? Not long.

Earlier this month, U.S. manufacturer Boeing, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), and a consortium of Russia’s Antonov and its partner U.S. Aerospace submitted bids to build the Pentagon’s new air refueling tanker to replace the venerable Boeing KC-135, in service now for five decades. The contract would be for 179 airplanes, worth ...

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, U.S. manufacturer Boeing, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), and a consortium of Russia's Antonov and its partner U.S. Aerospace submitted bids to build the Pentagon's new air refueling tanker to replace the venerable Boeing KC-135, in service now for five decades. The contract would be for 179 airplanes, worth about $35 billion initially. 

Replacement was slated to begin almost a decade ago when a procurement scandal got in the way, reportedly involving senior Air Force officials and Boeing. Then, an on-again, off-again bidding process and changes in specifications blocked the selection of competing designs. 

Despite its poor record in managing the process, the Air Force still needs to be in the pilot's seat and make a decision based on forecast needs. However, it should not wait too long. 

Earlier this month, U.S. manufacturer Boeing, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), and a consortium of Russia’s Antonov and its partner U.S. Aerospace submitted bids to build the Pentagon’s new air refueling tanker to replace the venerable Boeing KC-135, in service now for five decades. The contract would be for 179 airplanes, worth about $35 billion initially. 

Replacement was slated to begin almost a decade ago when a procurement scandal got in the way, reportedly involving senior Air Force officials and Boeing. Then, an on-again, off-again bidding process and changes in specifications blocked the selection of competing designs. 

Despite its poor record in managing the process, the Air Force still needs to be in the pilot’s seat and make a decision based on forecast needs. However, it should not wait too long. 

So-called "flying gas stations" make it possible for a variety of military aircraft to make long oceanic flights without hop scotching from island to island. When some countries deny landing privileges, they enable overflights. And, they help fighters to stay up longer with heavier weapon loads instead of having to carry extra fuel. 

With unmanned drones doing some of the close air support work of traditional fighter planes, it now makes sense to evaluate how many tankers the Air Force will need to refuel manned combat as well as peacetime cargo and training flights. This may be a good reason to stretch the buy over a number of years and reassess usefulness as missions change. 

Yet dragging out the initial decision risks not having enough tankers to meet wartime requirements and it delays acquisition of modern capabilities such as being able to refuel two receiver aircrafts at once or evade certain kinds of threats. Moreover, operating 50-year-old planes — or older — is really flying without a map, because you don’t know what will break. 

At the moment, the two most competitive options are the American-made Boeing 767 and the EADS/Airbus 330, both off-the shelf designs. The Airbus is bigger and carries about 23 percent more fuel. The 767 uses less space on the ground and takes off in a shorter distance, a critical factor at some of the airfields from which tankers must operate. Other considerations include how easily these planes can be serviced by aircrews alone if they land where there is little more than an airstrip and a fuel pit, or how well they can operate in some combat environments like nuclear war. 

A bone of contention and potential delay is a World Trade Organization ruling that European subsidies gave EADS an unfair advantage in developing the 330, making it less expensive than it otherwise might be. Some in Congress want the Pentagon to take that into account. The WTO ruling is subject to appeal and may be countered by charges that Boeing may have received subsidies as well. Assembly of either design would take place in the United States and lawmakers from districts in play are now part of a public debate. 

When I was a tanker pilot back in the late 1970s, the Boeing Company brought a demonstrator plane to our base. It was the commercial version of our KC-135 (Boeing 707-720) fitted with huge new turbofan engines, double the power of the old ones. Whereas our lumbering, underpowered jets used most of the runway on takeoff, the fully loaded demonstrator was barely halfway down when it seemed to leap into the sky. The Boeing reps bragged that similarly refurbished KC-135s could fly into the 21st century — perhaps even to 2010. 

In a timely fashion, the Air Force modified the fleet, thus buying extra time and capability.  But in case you haven’t looked at the calendar, we’re halfway through 2010. And despite some claims that the 135 could fly until 2040, the fleet will soon be needing lots of specially manufactured parts to remain airworthy. 

To be sure, the number one priority here is for the Air Force to carefully evaluate its future aerial refueling needs and see which offering more closely matches its criteria. Number two, Congress and the Obama administration should decide fairly quickly whether subsidies should be a factor in awarding contracts to defense firms. If the process is tied up another decade in bungled bids and trade squabbles, options for maintaining combat readiness in this crucial area may be unaffordable or unpalatable. 

Stephen Johnson is a senior advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. He was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2007 to 2009.

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