A deal to buy or lease new Boeing air refueling tankers for the Air Force was put on hold Tuesday for at least six months as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered two more studies of the proposal.
The reason: Problems with the aging KC-135s might not be as bad as advertised.
Members of the Washington state congressional delegation from both parties expressed frustration with Rumsfeld’s announcement shortly after it was posted on the Pentagon’s Web site, but they said they believe the studies will conclude the new planes are needed to shore up the Air Force’s fleet of KC-135 tankers.
The proposal calls for the Air Force to lease 20 planes and purchase 80 more from Boeing, which would modify its 767 jetliner as a mid-air refueling tanker. The first 32 of the new planes are scheduled to go to Fairchild Air Force Base, which will begin moving its KC-135s out this year as part of an Air Force-wide restructuring.
“I am confident the secretary will reach the same conclusions that the Congress has reached,” said Democrat Patty Murray, the state’s senior senator and one of the architects of the proposal. “We need new tankers, we need them now and Boeing offers the best product for taxpayers and the men and women in our armed forces.”
The delay for new studies is not expected to affect plans for swapping out Fairchild’s current fleet with the new tankers if the Air Force completes the deal, said Mike Spahn, a spokesman for Murray.
“I am very disappointed that the government is again delaying,” said Rep. George Nethercutt, a Spokane Republican, of the Bush administration’s latest roadblock to a plan he has actively supported. “We need new tankers and they need to be American made.”
In his brief announcement, Rumsfeld cited a recent report from the Defense Science Board that said corrosion – one of the main concerns about the KC-135s, which were built between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s – can be controlled. The maintenance costs might be more manageable than earlier reports suggested and the Pentagon may want to work with airplane manufacturers “to develop new tanker options with more modern airframes versus the 20-year-old 767 design.”
The proposal to replace some of the KC-135 fleet first surfaced shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the airline industry was reeling from the drop in air travel and the military had to sharply step up its combat flights for homeland security and the war on terrorism. Mid-air refueling is one of the key elements of U.S. air combat strategy.
The initial plan called for the Air Force to lease 100 767 jetliners that Boeing would build on its production line in Everett and convert to tankers at a facility in Kansas. That would help shore up jobs at Boeing, which was planning on layoffs as it phased out the 767.
Fairchild, which is one of the nation’s largest KC-135 bases, would get the first 32 and become the Air Force’s first 767 facility, possibly even adding a flight school for the new plane.
The new tankers would also be more fuel efficient than the KC-135s they would replace, and wouldn’t need as much maintenance, supporters such as Murray said. Leasing the planes meant the Air Force wouldn’t have to take money from its other weapons programs.
Critics, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., quickly noted that leasing the planes would be more expensive in the long run than buying them outright if the Air Force exercised its option to purchase them at the end of the lease.
If not, it would have to buy some other new tanker to perform the same job.
In a compromise, Congress voted late last year to lease the first 20 tankers and buy the remaining 80. But in the meantime, investigations turned up questions about whether the Air Force helped Boeing win approval for the 767 by tailoring the specifications to that plane.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Tuesday Rumsfeld’s review could provide a more open process for the controversial proposal.
“Further review … will give Boeing the opportunity to make an untainted case and ultimately win this deal,” Cantwell said in a prepared statement.
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