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Tankers lined up and ready to go

www.wn.com

This picture was taken at a base in Kansas.

Now the champagne corks can pop on Boeing tanker

Washington state elected officials are practically giddy this morning as the European manufacturer of Airbus announced it will not contest the Air Force decision to give a humongous tanker contract to Boeing.

The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. officially bowed out of the competition this morning, saying it will not appeal last Thursday's award of a $30 billion-plus contract for the first phase of replacing KC-135 tankers.

Here are a couple official yippeeee!!! statements.

From Gov. Chris Gregoire: “The decision by EADS is more proof that Boeing submitted the best proposal to the U.S. Air Force, and provides the public with more assurance that Boeing will build the most cost-effective and safest refueling tanker that best serves our military and our taxpayers. There’s no doubt Boeing and its workforce build the best planes in the world. I congratulate the 11,000 Washington aerospace workers that will play a role in manufacturing the next tanker, and look forward to seeing the first tanker come off the line.”

From Sen. Maria Cantwell: “Today is a proud day for all Washingtonians. Today’s announcement makes official what Washingtonians know in our bones: We build the best airplanes in the world. Even with the deck stacked against them, Washington aerospace workers prevailed over long odds, stiff competition and illegal foreign subsidies. Boeing, its workers and my colleagues in Congress never gave up in fighting for these 11,000 jobs.”

Remember that when EADS won the contract in 2008, Boeing challenged the decision and the Air Force had to start all over again. This decision suggests that Boeing can get going with the R&D portion of the contract.

Is the tanker sweepstakes over? We’ll see

With all the celebrating that has taken place since Boeing was declared the winner in the Air Force’s New Tanker Sweepstakes, it may be wise not to start adding all those jobs and money into the state’s moribund economy just yet. After all, the new tanker has the qualities of a reverse vampire – it is very hard to bring to life, and easy to kill.

The smart money, if there is such a thing in this long-running saga to replace the venerable KC-135, was actually on European Aerospace Defence and Space Inc. prior to the Pentagon’s announcement Thursday.

So worried were members of the Washington congressional delegation that at least one prepared a scathing response to an Airbus victory. A press release from Rep. Jay Inslee, whose district includes many once and future Boeing workers, hit e-mail inboxes just minutes after the announcement with a subject line of “Decision Will Not Stand”.

Whether Inslee was channeling Desert Storm-era George H.W. Bush or the Big Liebowski isn’t clear, for the text was appropriately celebratory of Boeing as “the best choice for the next gen tanker.” His staff apparently learned the dangers of something news outlets around the region were doing, preparing a story for each eventuality, and put the wrong headline on the right story.

But it brings to mind the fact that in 2008, the “smart money” was on Boeing winning the previous contract. When Washington’s favorite aerospace giant who has its headquarters elsewhere did not win, it appealed and won. EADS Airbus could do the same in the next week or so, and then where will we be?

About the same place we’ve been since the fall of 2001. . .

Experts warn against continued tanker delays

Two defense experts stepped up the pressure this week to end the political debate over the next generation aerial refueling tanker, and move forward — even while acknowleding that another round of delays is possible, at least in the short term.

Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, considers aerial refueling critical to national defense, particularly in the Pacific, and predicts that next month’s expected selection may be delayed yet again by a few more months, calling the fierce competion for the $35 billion contract one of the “longest and most complicated acquisitions ever.” She’s written a white paper called “9 Secrets of the Tanker War,” which examines the decade-long effort to choose a replacement for the KC-135.

It’s an interesting read and some may conclude she favors the EADS bid over the Boeing bid. She insists she’s not taking sides except to point out that when limiting examination only to the needs of the Pacific, which is her primary focus, a tanker that has greater offload capability and longer “linger” times would seem preferable. More on that can be found in a posting at DoD Buzz, along with a potent reader comment thread.

Meanwhile, another defense expert, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Selp, added his voice to those expressing concern over continued delays, telling reporters Oct. 19 at the National Press Club that aerial refueling is critical to combat commanders:

“I think everyone’s worst nightmare is a KC-135 disappears over the mid-Atlantic,” he said on a Federal News Radio segment about the tanker issue. “How did it go down? Will we ever find out? And is it because of an aging aircraft, and what does that mean about the risks that we have to do with our sons and daughters flying that aircraft. So that urgency is there.”

Having just spent 42 hours or so flying in KC-135s over the past week and a half, including two North Atlantic crossings between Fairchild and RAF Mildenhall, the scenario described by Selp was a bit too close for personal comfort. It’s a route that Fairchild crews fly at least once a week shuttling new equipment and personnel to Kyrgyzstan and back.

Spotlight on aging tanker fleet

Stars and Stripes today rolled out a Page One examination of America’s aging KC-135 fleet, questioning whether two wars have put too much strain on aircraft designed in the 1950s and facing replacement delays because of mishaps, scandal and politics.

It’s a good overall read, and includes interesting insights from a broad range of observers. The story focuses on the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall in England, though many of the sentiments expressed are similar to those I heard during the past few days at Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, where about a dozen Fairchild tankers are deployed.

Just in case you missed the hyperlink above, here it is again: http://www.stripes.com/news/taxed-by-wars-aging-air-tankers-suffer-fleet-fatigue-1.122207

Sleep when you can…

As morning light breaks over the Atlantic Ocean, Airman 1St Class James White with 92nd Air Refueling Wing from Fairchild Air Force Base, sleeps during his nine-hour flight to England in a KC-135R air refueling tanker Oct. 14, 2010. White is on his way to a four-month deployment in Kyrgyzstan that will involve deicing aircraft at the Manas Transit Center.

Prepare for landing

After an overnight in England, Capt. Chris Dieter and his co-pilot Lincoln Olsen prepare to land their KC-135R Stratotanker at Manas Transit Center Oct. 15, 2010. The night before, over the Atlantic Ocean, the crew was given a front row seat to a massive Northern Lights show.

WA congresspersons to Pentagon: Keep tanker timeline

Five members of Washington’s congressional delegation joined an effort to keep the Pentagon from delaying its selection the builder of the next air refueling tanker by asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates not to extend the timeline for making that choice.
Without mentioning either company by name, they are supporting the Boeing Co., and trying to close out rival Airbus.
Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Doc Hastings, and Democrats Jay Inslee, Adam Smith and Rick Larsen are among 16 members of the House urging Gates not to vary from the 75-day selection deadline announced in February. Their stated reasons include eight years of delay already in replacing the KC-135s, and the additional costs to taxpayers.

The KC-135, which was designed by Boeing in the 1950s and built through the early 1960s, is the backbone of the U.S. Air Force tanker fleet and the plane flown by the 92nd Air Refueling Wing and the Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing, both based at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Finding a replacement for part of the KC-135 fleet started some nine years ago, and has been marked by fraud, collusion, political bickering and pandering, mistakes and missteps. Meanwhile, the 135s keep flying in two war zones and for a variety of other military missions around the globe.
The process to select a new tanker is a subject of intense interest, the members of Congress wrote, but “the need for new tankers is long overdue.”
A consortium that included Northrop Grumman and EADS, the manufacturer of Airbus, beat out Boeing for an estimated $40 billion contract in early 2008. That award was thrown out a few months later after Boeing protested and the Government Accountability Office found problems with the selection process. New specifications were announced in February and Boeing notified the Air Force eight days later it would enter a new bid, again using a version of its 767 jetliner.
Four days later, Northrop Grumman said it wasn’t entering the competition. In late March, however, EADS said it would submit a proposal if the deadline was extended and “there is a fair chance to win.”

Tanker bids this summer?

The Air Force should be releasing the draft version sometime in May of its “request for proposal” on a new aerial refueling tanker.

That’s one of the things Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and members of the Greater Spokane Inc. delegation learned during their visit to the Pentagon today.

In a telephonic press conference this afternoon, McMorris Rodgers said Air Force officials said a new tanker, refered to as the KC-X, “remains the No. 1 priority.” They expect to award the contract, worth an estimated $35 billion, in the first half of 2010.

Talk of a new tanker has been bandied about since 2001, and has gone through several missteps, miscues and mess-ups. Some were the fault of Congress, others, the fault of the military.

“They recognize there have been some misstakes made,” McMorris Rodgers said.

The latest iteration has some powerful members of Congress suggesting the Air Force split the deal between Boeing and Norhrop-Grumman-Airbus, to avoid the Texas death match the two airplane manufacturers are locked in…

Popping in at the Pentagon

Greater Spokane Inc. is on its annual “mission to Washington, D.C.” where it will have a first-ever audience with the two top Air Force honchos, AF Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and AF Secretary Michael Donley.

The mission is a yearly opportunity for local government and business types — many of whom deplore federal spending and the size of the federal deficit — to lobby members of Congress for some money for programs in the Inland Northwest. One of the things they desperately want is for the Air Force to build a new aerial refueling tanker to replace the KC-135 … and stick the first couple dozen of them at Fairchild Air Force base.

They’ll get no argument from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who will be escorting them to the Pentagon, her staff reports in a press release. The Eastern Washington Republican notes that Fairchild crews are flying tankers that are more than 50 years old and “we wouldn’t get on a passenger plane that old. Our military shouldn’t have to rely on planes that old, either.”

Or, as GSI President Rich Hadley put it: “We thought about driving a ‘57 Ford to D.C. to make the point that the KC-135 refueling tankers must be replaced and that Fairchild AFB is ready to be the first operational base to accept them.”

Which suggests a number of questions…