This shouldn’t be so difficult

Pentagon urges tanker support

The proposed plan to lease 100 Boeing 767 tanker aircraft is a complete shambles. I really have trouble taking the issue seriously.

Quick Summary:

  • The Air Force says it needs to get more tankers for mid-air refueling
  • Boeing needs to build some 767s or it will have to shut down the production line
  • Airbus was competing with Boeing to supply tanker aircraft to the Air Force
  • One of the Air Force’s top procurement officials, Darleen Druyun, told Boeing the Airbus bid was $5 million to $17 million cheaper than Boeing’s 767 bid
  • That gave Boeing a kick in the pants to work out a deal
  • Darleen Druyun now works for Boeing in Washington
  • At the end of the lease, the tankers would have to be reconverted into commercial tankers at Air Force expense before returning them to Boeing
  • Leasing them will cost about $22.4 billion
  • Buying them outright would cost about $22.5 billion
  • Arizona Senator John McCain is all over this deal and has stalled it
  • The Pentagon wants the Boeing tanker lease program to start quickly and with few modifications
  • Air Force reports indicate that the exisiting tankers should be able to fly for close to 40 more years

The cry is that this is a bail-out of Boeing, who’s seriously down in the mouth since the 9/11 attacks two years ago. On the face of it, I don’t have any particular problem paying a US manufacturer slightly more than a foreign manufacturer. And, although the existing KC-135 tankers would probably be good enough for at least a couple more decades, I don’t have any problem with upgrading the refueling fleet.

But this deal plain stinks. Why would we pay as much to lease as to buy? (Never mind that many people think the lease will end up costing many billion dollars more.) So we can get them a few years earlier? It’s been established that the KC-135s are good for many years to come. A couple of years isn’t going to cripple our military. If Boeing can’t hang on, then that’s that, I guess. But if they’ve got a good government deal a couple of years out, I think they’ll find a way to hang on.

(I’m not even going to discuss how stupid it is to say that it really would take years to build and field these aircraft. And I certainly won’t bring up the fact that they’ve already been negotiating this deal for two years. And it would drive me NUTS if I thought about the fact that I’ve been paying the negotiators all that time. So have you.)

If we really need the planes, get them. If it makes more economic sense to lease than to buy, lease them. If paying more to Boeing to keep that line afloat is worth it to our country, I guess pay more. But I’m not sure that any of those three issues are clear.

Do we need the planes? Maybe. Always, the more support available, the better. And the KC-135s are old. But so are the B-52s that have been the most effective bombers in the USAF since shortly after my dad was born.

Does it make more economic sense to lease? Maybe in the short term. But when we’re talking about aircraft life measured in decades, I don’t know how important the short term is. We aren’t desperate for these planes.

Is it worth it to pay more to Boeing than to Airbus? I actually think so. How much more? I’m not so sure. But if the need is there, we should buy from Americans unless to do so is just plain stupid. I don’t think this is.

The Pentagon is doing everything it can to rush this deal through. 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?