There’s a saying among psychotherapists that when every other approach fails to help a troubled patient, the mere passage of time sometimes can work wonders. The same is true of the Air Force’s abortive efforts to jump-start modernization of its aging tanker fleet. The longer it waits to get started on replacing its Eisenhower-era fleet, the more obvious the need to do so will be.
Among political pundits, Senator McCain’s apparently successful effort to block leasing of tankers has become a parable about how one honest man can still make a difference. That isn’t how it looks inside the Air Force, though, because the political system has once again undercut the service’s ability to meet future military needs.
Something similar happened in the 1990’s when a coalition of anti-military liberals and “enlightened” conservatives terminated the B-2 bomber program at 21 planes and drastically cutback the C-17 transport program. A decade later the need for more B-2’s was so obvious that even the New York Times was editorializing in favor of it. But it was too late: the nation had spent $40 billion to buy 21 planes, and was saddled with 1950s-vintage B-52s for the foreseeable future. The C-17 decision eventually was reversed, but not before flawed reasoning had added $10 billion to the program cost.
So here we are again, looking at the possibility of a long delay before modernization of aerial refueling tankers commences. What are the practical implications of this situation? First of all, it means that someday U.S. pilots will be flying 70-year-old tankers. The Air Force has 500 tankers to replace, so at 25 per year it will take two decades to do so. If it begins in 2008 and deliveries commence several years later, the last delivery will occur around 2030 — at which point the tankers being replaced will be 70 years old.
Of course, that’s assuming that the existing tankers can keep flying for that long. Nobody has ever operated a jet for 70 years, so it’s possible that some combination of metal fatigue and corrosion will do in the fleet long before it reaches that age. In which case the military will be in a world of hurt. Almost all the Navy planes that operated in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq required refueling from Air Force tankers. If the tankers are grounded, so is the Navy. Ditto for Air Force bombers and tactical aircraft, which in wartime often have to fight far beyond their unrefueled operating radius.
But surely we can all agree that hobbling America’s military is a small price to pay if it allows us to avoid bailing out the avaricious Boeing. After all, why would a country with the largest trade deficit ever recorded want to do anything to help its biggest exporter? And if the Boeing 767 line closes for lack of commercial orders before the political system gets its act together on tanker modernization, we can always buy tankers from Airbus, right?
Besides, as one Republican who opposes the tanker lease pointed out to me, Boeing has been hiring Democrats in its Washington office. This is no time to reward them.
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