Was it really only two weeks ago that Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was complaining so bitterly about the supposed efforts of House defense appropriations chairman Norm Dicks (D-WA) to influence a weapons competition? How time flies! Now Sessions is doing the same thing he accused Dicks of doing, and he’s chosen to focus on the one issue that could doom his home state’s efforts to host a factory building the Air Force’s next aerial-refueling tanker — fuel consumption.
The program that has Sessions pumped up this week is the Littoral Combat Ship, which pits an aluminum trimaran built in Mobile, Alabama against a more conventional steel warship built in Marinette, Wisconsin. The Navy plans to decide this summer which design it prefers, and many observers — including some in Mobile — think the steel ship has an edge in the competition. Enter Senator Sessions, who recently asked the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to study what contribution fuel costs are likely to make to the ship’s life-cycle costs. Apparently the Alabama ship uses less fuel than the Wisconsin vessel if you open up the engines and operate at top speed.
CBO’s finding was that fuel isn’t all that important a component of costs — around 11% in the most likely operating scenario, compared to the 64% of life-cycle costs that building the ship would constitute. Either version of the Littoral Combat Ship is likely to be relatively cheap to operate, because it is a small warship with only a few dozen crew members. So even if the Alabama version of the vessel has a significant advantage in fuel efficiency — which its rivals dispute — the net impact on overall life-cycle costs would only be 1-2%. Undeterred, Senator Sessions has issued a statement complaining about the way the Navy weighs fuel consumption in comparing the competing ship designs.
This puts Sen. Sessions in a rather odd position because barely two weeks ago he was assailing Congressman Dicks for interfering in the efforts of European aerospace company EADS to form a team for the Air Force’s tanker competition — a team that EADS says would perform final assembly of its plane in Mobile. But the Airbus A330 that EADS is proposing is a huge gas guzzler, burning 2,800 pounds more fuel per flight hour than the rival Boeing 767. So not only is Sen. Sessions engaging in the same sort of interference that he accused Dicks of, but he is making his stand on an issue that is a real weak spot for the home-state champion in the tanker competition.
Senator Sessions says the Air Force should buy the EADS tanker because it is a “transformational” aircraft — which is a fancy way of saying that bigger planes can carry more fuel for refueling missions. But bigger planes also burn more fuel, and in the case of the tanker the impact on life-cycle costs of each plane burning over a ton more fuel per flight hour for decades really would be profound. Oddly enough, Sen. Session hasn’t commended the Air Force for insisting that this factor be weighed in determining which tanker is more cost-effective. Considering how flexible he has proven to be on the subject of congressional interference in weapons competitions, he’ll probably find some pretext for arguing that fuel efficiency should be ignored in the tanker competition, but given much higher priority in the warship competition. Sweet home Alabama!
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