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Lawmaker proposes split deal for tanker

Mon., March 23, 2009

WASHINGTON – Despite opposition from the Pentagon, one of the most powerful members of the House Appropriations Committee is considering including a provision in an upcoming supplemental defense bill that would split the $35 billion contract for Air Force refueling tankers between Boeing and a European competitor.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, said that with the U.S. fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, additional delays in replacing the current fleet of aerial refueling tankers, some of which date to the Eisenhower era, are unacceptable.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, said a split contract between Boeing and a Northrop Grumman-European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. team would be a mistake that could end up costing taxpayers billions of additional dollars.

“I think it’s bad public policy and I think it’s bad acquisition policy,” Gates said at a Pentagon news conference last week.

Murtha’s move would be the latest development in the troubled effort, which began in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to replace the Air Force’s aging fleet of 600 tankers. Setbacks included a major Pentagon contracting scandal and a decision to withdraw a contract awarded last year to Northrop-EADS after government investigators found crucial mistakes had been made in evaluating the bids.

Under the original timetable, the Air Force expected to start taking delivery of the tankers in 2013. A new contract competition could easily delay that by several more years.

The initial $35 billion contract would be for 179 planes, but eventually the deal could cost an estimated $100 billion.

Boeing has been cool to the idea of splitting the tanker contract, though it has officially taken no position and continues to insist it would win any new competition. Northrop-EADS has said it would go along with a dual procurement if that was the fastest way to get tankers into service.

As early as this week, the Obama administration is expected to send Congress a $75.5 billion supplemental request to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Burt Moore said a split contract doesn’t appear to make a lot of sense. Moore, who flew fighters, and served as the deputy chief of staff for operations and as the Air Force’s legislative liaison, said the idea is to buy the best plane possible.

“Why would you do a split buy, which means you get one plane that you want and another plane which is not exactly what you want?” Moore asked.

At least one outside defense analyst, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a national security research organization in Arlington, Va., said Murtha’s plan is attractive because, in the long run, it would save the Air Force from having to maintain its fleet of KC-135s, some of which have experienced corrosion problems.

“Unfortunately, 90 percent of the fleet is nearly a half-century old,” Thompson said.

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