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Tanker contract should go to winner

With the U.S. House and Senate competing with each other to see who can add what to the stimulus package, one might think all the crazy ideas to spend taxpayer money are just about used up.

One would be wrong, of course.

Last Friday in Mobile, Ala., the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense offered up a new one. The Associated Press reported that Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said he’d favor splitting that $40 billion contract for new Air Force tankers between Boeing and Northrop Grumman/Airbus, the two companies competing to build a replacement for the KC-135.

You know, the planes that fly in and out of Fairchild Air Force Base; the ones that look a lot like a jetliner, except for that stick coming out their rears.

During a visit to the city where Northrop would build an assembly plant if it gets the contract, Murtha reportedly said both companies should get some of the work. This after the Air Force selected Northrop last year but reopened the bidding when the Government Accountability Office found flaws with the way it handled the process.

So the process has bogged down, and an alternative approach is needed to get the refueling tankers built, he said.

Excuse me, but when did the nation’s system of buying a major military system become like a 20-something shopping for jeans, finding two pair that she likes so much that she can’t make a choice, and maxing out the Visa card to buy them both?

OK, that’s not fair. At least not to the 20-somethings I know. Whatever her spendthrift shopping habits, chances are she’ll get those jeans home, try them on with different tops and shoes and boots – maybe glance at the Visa statement on the counter – and take at least one pair of jeans back. Maybe both.

But this is a contract for aerial refueling tankers, worth an estimated $40 billion. That’s billion with a “b,” a figure that used to impress the hell out of people before the federal government started doling out dollars in the billions to banks. Once you buy something like tankers, you can’t take them back.

Beyond being a questionable fiscal policy, it’s pretty stupid from a military standpoint. Yes, the nation needs replacements for the venerable KC-135s. And it needs to start replacing them pretty soon, considering the 135s started rolling off the Boeing assembly line when cars had fins and Wally and the Beav were making their TV debut.

But it does not need to start replacing them with two new tankers. As the Pentagon and the competing contractors were quick to point out last year, it’s more expensive to split the contract.

It means two complete training systems, because half the pilots need to learn to fly one airplane, and half learn to fly the other.

It means two complete maintenance systems, because half the mechanics need to fix one, and the other half need to fix the other. It means two complete inventories of spare parts. And so on.

Because the Pentagon has a process to determine which plane is better, it also means some of the planes would be the better design, and the rest would be the worse.

Admittedly, the process hasn’t worked very well so far. Corrupt executives have gone to prison, Congress has investigated, and the GAO has ordered a redo.

But that doesn’t mean Congress just shrugs its shoulders and says, “Whatever, dude.” It means Congress goes all-in, tells the Pentagon to get it right this time and pick the better plane, double-checks to make sure the generals do it, and buys that plane.

That may mean that Boeing gets aced out, and the layoffs in the Puget Sound get worse. And that would suck for the state of the state’s economy. Partly because of that, Northwest residents want to believe that Boeing is right when it says it has built the best military tankers for a half-century and will continue to do so. If it can’t, the state is in for some rocky times.

But if it can’t, it shouldn’t get $20 billion or some other chunk of the taxpayers’ money for finishing second.

Maybe Murtha has been reading his Old Testament and hit on the story of Solomon ordering the baby cut in half. If so, he should finish that chapter of 1 Kings, and be reminded the boy wasn’t actually sliced in two.

A few years ago, Murtha showed some backbone on Iraq and stood up for what he thought, even when it wasn’t popular. Due respect, Mr. Chairman, but it’s time to show some backbone on tankers, too. You and Congress need to do your job.

Spin Control is a weekly political column by Jim Camden, who can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@spokesman.com. Spin Control is also a Web log with daily posts at www.spokesmanreview.com.


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