Ever since Senator John McCain was wrongly accused of aiding a corrupt savings and loan official in the 1980s, he has been on a crusade to improve ethical standards in the federal government. Much of what he has accomplished on issues like campaign finance looks constructive. But sometimes he is so shrill that it seems there’s more going on than just the pursuit of good government.
A case in point is the debate over whether the Air Force should be allowed to lease Boeing 767 jets as aerial refueling tankers. The service has 545 KC-135’s (90% of its refueling fleet) that were produced during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations. Without those tankers, U.S. combat aircraft could not operate effectively in remote places like the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. But they average 43 years of age, and are hard to keep flying. On any day a third are unavailable for service. Maintenance costs are doubling every six years.
The Air Force wants to lease 767’s so that it can begin replacing aging tankers. The basic concept is like a home mortgage: you borrow money up front to acquire the house, and then pay it back over time with interest. Leasing is a common practice in the airline industry, since widebody jets cost over $100 million each. The Air Force prefers to lease rather than buy because it is strapped for cash, and would like to spread out its costs. That allows it to begin modernizing years before it would have the money for an outright purchase.
Senator McCain is the main obstacle to doing a lease. At first, he argued the deal was too favorable to Boeing, and that it was negotiated improperly. But as outside reviews vindicate the logic and terms of the transaction, he is broadening his attack. Now he wonders whether the “operational requirements document” for modernizing tankers is valid, and wants the Air Force to conduct a formal “analysis of alternatives.”
Those are really bad arguments. Concerning requirements, how much intellectual horsepower does it take to figure out whether Eisenhower-era tankers that are grounded a third of the time need to be replaced? If the Air Force began buying one new tanker every two weeks right now, it would take over a decade to replace even half of the fleet. Do we really want to be flying sixty-year-old tankers in war zones someday? And what would it cost to keep them flying when they’re already exhibiting the same corrosion and parts obsolescence that every other machine from the 1950’s does?
As for the analysis of alternatives, we already know what the other options are. The Air Force could buy planes from Airbus (meaning the French), which Congress will never approve. It could hang new engines on old tankers, which would mean flying them until they’re seventy or eighty — and then replacing them about the time that baby boomers the same age are clamoring for more government benefits. Or we could equip military transports like the C-17 to be tankers, which would cost a lot more and eliminate any chance of servicing them at commercial airports around the world. The alternatives don’t work. Senator McCain should get the best terms possible from Boeing, and call it a day.
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