Ever since Senator John McCain threw a monkey wrench into efforts to lease new aerial-refueling tankers five years ago, the Air Force has been struggling to implement an alternate strategy. It has spent a lot of time and money on the process but still hasn’t managed to buy a single new tanker. Now the 453 Eisenhower-era tankers that make up most of the aerial refueling fleet are approaching 50 years of age. Since nobody has ever operated jets for this long, there’s no way of knowing for sure when they will start falling out of the sky due to metal fatigue or corrosion. But with the replacement process likely to take decades, it’s a safe bet that will eventually happen.
The Air Force provides aerial refueling to all of the military services and allies too, so if its tanker fleet is grounded by age-related problems, the nation’s entire military posture could be crippled. Flying to places like Afghanistan and Guam often requires multiple refuelings, and right now the Air Force is accomplishing that mission with the kind of planes that airlines retired a generation ago. So you’d think there would be some sense of urgency about finally getting the acquisition process right and moving out on buying new tankers.
Well, no such luck. Despite Obama Administration rhetoric about openness in federal contracting, the new and improved tanker selection process has all the transparency of the FBI’s witness protection program. The performance requirements for the future tankers were blessed by the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council with almost no input from industry, and now the acquisition strategy is being crafted in much the same way. If you were planning to spend $100 billion over the next 30 years on a new aircraft fleet, wouldn’t you want to check with the only two qualified suppliers to determine whether your terms and specifications were reasonable?
We have been here before. Last year the Air Force kept contractors in the dark for several months before releasing the findings of its initial tanker competition, which proved to be so poorly executed that the whole process was overturned by the Government Accountability Office. That doesn’t necessarily mean the wrong tanker was selected, but there were so many problems with the way the process was carried out that the service had to start over. Many of those problems could have been avoided if the industry teams had been kept informed on how the selection process was unfolding. Instead, the Air Force couldn’t explain its approach convincingly even after the winner was announced.
The current buildup to a re-competition is being carried out with even greater secrecy. This time around the Air Force doesn’t bear all the blame, because Secretary Gates has reserved final oversight of key tanker decisions for his office. That means it will be his fault if the process unravels a second time, especially given the administration’s righteous indignation about past acquisition errors. What’s missing from its high-minded rhetoric is any acknowledgment of the role government incompetence played in bringing about those errors. When it comes to buying weapons, this really is the worst form of government except for all the others, to quote Churchill. But perhaps a more fitting quote for the present tanker process would be George Santayana’s observation about how people who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
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