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Panel: Delay new tanker; McMorris Rodgers: Say what?

A congressional panel studying ways to save billions in the Defense budget came up with one that's sure to be unpopular in Washington state: Delaying a new air refueling tanker to replace the aging KC-135s, like the ones flown out at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Bad idea, says Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. The Eastern Washington Republican said in a press release that replacing the KC-135 has already dragged on too long.

The Sustainable Defense Task Force, set up by Congress and chaired by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., issued a report last week with a long list of things to cut Pentagon costs. The ones that got the most attention were thinks like reducing the nuclear stockpile, cancelling some pricey new weapons systems or buying considerably fewer fancy fighter planes.

But tucked inside the report's section on cancelling or delaying various programs was this suggestion on the new tanker:

Delay procurement of the KC-X Aerial Refueling
Tanker for five years;
In the interim, retain and
upgrade some existing tankers. Save $9.9 billion from
The KC-X is supposed to replace roughly one-third of
the current KC-135 tanker fleet. The first five tankers
were to have been purchased in 2010, with production
increasing to 15 aircraft per year in 2014. The program
remains on hold, however, due to an ongoing contracting
An alternative option, described in 2009 by the Congressional
Budget Office, would delay procurement
of the KC-X Aerial Refueling Tanker by five full years
and, instead, retain and upgrade 60 KC-135Es during
that period.42 CBO notes that, despite their age, the
“KC-135s still have significant structural life remaining.”
The retained aircraft would be upgraded to the KC-135R
standard, which CBO argues is better performing and
more reliable.
A five-year delay would also allow the program to
focus on the new design 787 or A-350XWB commercial
aircraft, rather than the old design Boeing 767 and the
Airbus A-330, as is currently likely. The new design aircraft
are likely to have lower operating costs. In addition,
DoD might benefit from larger production runs as these
new aircraft draw other government and commercial

McMorris Rodgers responded with the predictable, although accurate, observation that the KC-135s are already 50 years old. (Thankfully, she refrained from the one of the other refrains of "older than the pilots that fly them.") But she did allow as how planes designed in the '50s and built in the 60s are hardly state of the art technology.

"For the sake of our national security, we need to move forward with the acquisition process for the KC-X Tanker – a process which has already been drawn out too long and cost taxpayers too much money,” she said.

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.