A Pentagon report not only has pointed out other options besides buying or leasing converted 767s from Boeing for use as airborne tankers, it questions whether new tankers are needed at all.
This is hardly good news for Boeing, whose ambitious plan to lease up to 100 of the 767s for use as aerial refueling tankers has become so mired in controversy that many military analysts now say it will not survive.
In December, the Pentagon suspended the project until Rumsfeld could review half a dozen studies ordered on the subject.
“If the tanker deal for Boeing isn’t dead,” said Richard Aboulafia, a military analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Va., “it’s coughing blood. It’s not looking good.”
Nothing looks good when it’s coughing blood. And this beast was questionable to begin with.
All along the main questions in this issue, even bigger than the question of improper interaction between Boeing and certain military decision-makers, have been “Should we buy new tankers or should we lease them?”, “Are modified 767s the best route to take?”, and “Do we even need new tankers at all?”
The lease vs. buy question seems pretty clear-cut. Leasing the planes would have been billions of dollars more expensive. And it’s not like we were going to give them back when the lease was up, anyway. We would have bought them at that point. That’s always seemed like a no-brainer to me.
The decision to go with modified 767s doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, though I certainly don’t know enough to even pretend to have a meaningful opinion. As for choosing Boeing over Airbus, I’m all for it. Even if the planes are slightly more expensive, buying American will benefit America more in the long run. For what it’s worth, I’m all for figuring out a way to use modified 767s as JDAM bombing platforms, while we’re at it. One caveat with bigger refuelers is that there will be fewer of them, and therefore we will be less able to flood the sky with tankers in an emergency and will be more vulnerable to the loss of a few to combat or mishap.
The need for new tankers to replace aging 707-based airframes is very uncertain. There’s no doubt that the current fleet is old. There’s no doubt that new planes will have to begin entering service at some point. And there’s no doubt that we don’t want to be caught running short of mid-air refuelling capacity at any time in any place for any reason. I’ve heard that a life-extension program for the current fleet of tankers was canceled recently as part of the effort to gain support for new tankers. That certainly should be reinstated.
If we need tankers, we need tankers. Buy them. But if we can wait five years, what’s the rush? The 767 production line will be closed by then if the order doesn’t come through right now? Well, so be it. Although I support buying American whenever possible, I don’t support corporate welfare for the sake of corporate welfare. If the 767 line will be gone by the time we need new tankers, I guess we had better find a new platform to base the new tankers on. And there are certainly options out there.
Boeing’s competitors are seizing the opportunity to elbow in. Even if the need for new tankers to replace a fleet that dates back to the Eisenhower era is not as urgent as the Air Force might contend, no one doubts that replacements will be needed in the not-too-distant future.
Airbus, which is 80 percent owned by EADS, Europe’s largest aerospace company and Boeing’s archrival, has its own aerial tanker — and recently won some overseas orders that Boeing had hoped to land.
And Airbus, which has sold its aerial tankers to Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada, has just invested $90 million to redesign its models to United States Air Force qualifications. In addition, Airbus promises to have 50 percent American-made content in its tankers and would do its final assembly in the United States.
In addition, FedEx and airlines with spare planes on their hands have stepped up their lobbying efforts in Washington.
I started writing about this issue last September. At the time I wrote
It smells to me a little like a football team after a controversial play desperately trying to get to the line and snap the ball before the opposing coaches can decide whether they want to challenge the call and look at a replay. I think the Air Force wants this ball snapped before enough people get a close enough look at the deal. John McCain has tossed the red flag onto the field.
The answers are right there. Let’s look at this again. In slow motion. From every available angle. Let everyone see. We’ve already spent two years on the project. Why not spend another couple of weeks or months to make sure we do it right?
They’ve called in more referees, and now the replays are being run on the Jumbotron for everyone to see. I think we should take as long as it takes.