Letter to the Editor of Defense News
To the Editor:
Your editorial of May 19 (“The Case for Leasing”) was a perfect exposition of the issues surrounding replacement of aging Air Force tankers. I could not agree more with the sentiment in the editorial’s opening sentence — the time has come to make a decision, rather than to continue deferring action on such such a critical military need.
When President Bush was briefed last August at his Crawford ranch about the 2004 military budget, Pentagon representatives emphasized two aging-aircraft problems. One was the overstretched fleet of Prowler electronic-warfare planes operated by the Navy. The other was the Air Force’s increasingly decrepit collection of 546 KC-135 tankers.
The Pentagon now has a plan for replacing Prowlers, as it does for aging fighters and transports. But progress on replacing tankers has been held up by the Office of Management and Budget and the complaints of a single Senator. If the obstacles to prompt tanker modernization are not overcome, the military value of all the other aircraft being bought will be undermined by reduced range and persistence.
The U.S. deployed over 200 tankers to the Persian Gulf region during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and they flew 8,000 sorties through early May. Without them, carrier-based aircraft in the Mediterranean would have been unable to reach the war zone — just as they would have been unable to reach Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom. Air Force planes too would have been hobbled by distance and basing constraints.
But the vast majority of Air Force tankers are 40-year-old KC-135s, military versions of the Boeing 707 that commercial airlines retired a generation ago. The planes require much more maintenance now than they did during Operation Desert Storm a dozen years ago. In fact, on any given day a quarter of the fleet is unavailable due to repair needs.
The maintenance problems will only get worse as time takes an increasing toll in corrosion, metal fatigue and technological obsolesence.
Your editorial was exactly right in asserting that replacement of aging tankers is the only rsponsible course of action. The services have seen enough of patching up Cold-War relics. But with hundreds of tankers to replace, modernization must begin now. That is the virtue of using commercial leasing practices to buy the first installment of new planes — it allows modernization to commence immediately, rather than deferring action to some future administration.
Critics of leasing should explain what their alternative is for averting the prospect of operating 60-year-old tankers in 2020. As for the oft-repeated canard that this is some sort of bailout for Boeing, critics ought to compare the lease terms with those offered to commercial customers for the same plane. It looks more like a bailout for taxpayers, who otherwise will be saddled with the costs of trying to keep hundreds of vintage tankers flying for the foreseeable future.
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