Tanker Award Shows Pacific Strategy

This article first appeared at AviationWeek.com.

One interesting outcome of the U.S. Air Force tanker decision is the further shift in U.S. national strategic priorities that it indicates -- toward the Pacific Ocean.

In choosing the Northrop Grumman/EADS proposal, Pentagon leaders have opted for an aircraft that can fly the longer distances, and carrying more people and cargo, required for rapid, trans-Pacific Ocean deployments.

Of relatively less importance is the traditional European, southwest Asia, South American and Middle Eastern missions that demand smaller, less-developed runways, as well as minimum footprint for accelerated through-put on less-developed forward airbases, and high-cycle rates for intense aerial combat. By contrast, the Pacific -- nearly 156 million square kilometers, according to the CIA's World FactBook -- embodies the "tyranny of distance" that U.S. forces face in trying to respond or deploy to worldwide events.

About 16 months ago, the Air Force withdrew its tanker request-for-proposals -- which included capabilities such as cargo, passengers and add-on mission like signals intelligence -- to refocus it on the basic A-model task of in-flight refueling so that the primary mission would not be compromised.

When Northrop threatened to pull out of the competition altogether, U.S. officials again changed the competition to add features - including extra credit for cargo and passenger carrying capabilities that aren't required for the refueling mission.

Those factors, which go toward providing the "more" as described by Gen. Arthur Lichte, Air Force Air Mobility Command chief, during the tanker-winner announcement, tipped the choice toward Northrop and EADS.

The Air Force's move follows along with Army and Navy-Marine Corps build-ups in the Pacific as well, all of which followed the 2005/2006 Quadrennial Defense Review under Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon administration. That QDR announced a strategic shift from Atlantic to Pacific oceans, especially eyeing China, North Korea and potential hotspots triggered by Islamic extremists in Indonesia or The Philippines, for instance.

Although limited in overall fleet size, the Navy is moving and centering the bulk of its existing and planned forces in the Pacific. From aircraft carriers to submarines and Littoral Combat Ships, U.S. warships will become far more familiar with Pacific climes than in Cold War years...

Read more of this story, the gouge on TSAT, NRO troubles and BAMS delays from our Aviation Week partners on Military.com.

-- Christian

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