Yet another U.S. military
procurement mess. The issue is controversial. Both sides are pulling out all of
the stops. Each side is showcasing retired generals, lobbying officials, and
sending out press releases. The stakes are high, tempers are short, and it may
take a while to figure out who is right. You might think the issue is Iraq,
handling high-value terrorists, or even Iran. You'd be wrong, though. This
battle is over who wins the KC-X (a new aerial tanker) competition.
Sounds mundane, doesn't it? Well, not so mundane
when you consider the fact that the KC-135s that form the bulk of the Air Force
tanker force are an average of 46 years old. In airplane years, that can be
pretty old. And the tankers are arguably one of the Air Force's most important
assets. They don't drop bombs or shoot down fighters. All they do is extend the
reach of the planes that do.
How important is that? Consider that in World War
II, the way you got planes to the front was to send them by ship. That was a
very slow way to do so, considering that a carrier could only go about 55
kilometers per hour. Planes can cover that distance in a much shorter time
(usually due to cruising speeds of about 600 kilometers per hour), but only if
you can refuel them in mid-air. This was how the United States could deploy the
1st Fighter Wing to Saudi Arabia in 1990, after the invasion of Kuwait.
Tankers can also be deployed to places that may not
want combat aircraft, allowing bombers to refuel to launch their weapons,
enabling a bomber to launch from a base in the United States and hit targets
anywhere around the world. The current Air Force tanker force consists of 546
KC-135s (based on the 707 airliner) and 59 KC-10s (based on the DC-10
airliner). The KC-135s are aging. Plans to replace older KC-135s with 100
KC-767 tankers were shot down by a crusade led by Senator John McCain. The
KC-135s soldiered on, but were not getting any younger.
Is this competition likely to be resolved soon?
That is doubtful . Recent competitions have become very bitterly fought. The
HH-47's victory in the CSAR-X (search and rescue helicopter) competition has
gone through two protests already, with more likely as the losing competitors
try to pick the win apart. There is $40 billion at stake for the first phase of
the KC-X program - and it could be as much as $100 billion if it replaces all
of the KC-135s. In essence, the KC-X war will make the CSAR-X war look like
peanuts. Meanwhile, as that war goes on, the Air Force will have to soldier on
with existing tankers that will be pushing 50 years of age. - Harold C.