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An Objective View of Tankers?

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Is it un-American to want the U.S. Air Force to purchase the primarily European-built EADS Airbus A330 aircraft for its next-generation tanker aircraft? Speaker of the House Ms Nancy Pelosi and several members of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, believe that to procure a foreign aircraft is reprehensible.

The A330MRTT was selected in a second competition for the next-generation tanker -- to be designated KC-45 -- winning out against the Boeing KC-767. There was great irony when the Air Force announced selection of the A330MRTT in late February 2008. Boeing had been awarded a contract for its KC-767AT to serve as the next-generation tanker in a 2002 lease-buy agreement. That deal was to provide 100 tankers at a cost of more than $20 billion.

But several members of Congress as well as Department of Defense officials and analysts questioned that deal. It unraveled with the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition -- who took a job with Boeing shortly after the contract award -- going to jail and several Boeing officials stepping down. 

A new competition for the tanker contract was held with a rigorous and transparent process. The A330MRTT was selected on the basis of cost and, in most selection categories, superior performance. The A330MRTT has operated as a tanker and has been selected for that role by Great Britain (14 aircraft), Australia (5), the United Arab Emirates (3), and Saudi Arabia (3).

(While the KC-767AT has not yet operated as a tanker, four have been ordered by Italy and Japan has ordered four convertible freighter variants.)

Boeing has protested the tanker award and several members of Congress have declared that the foreign buy (1) would cost American jobs,(2) was possible only because of European governments subsidizing the aircrafts development, and (3) secret American technology would be lost. These issues dominate the debate as this blog is written.

Yes, American jobs will be lost. Boeing would have to work harder to sell more aircraft to compensate for the loss of tanker aircraft. Airbus, owned by EADS, and its American partner -- Northrop Grumman -- will assemble the aircraft in Mobile, Alabama, creating new jobs in what the firm calls "a new aerospace manufacturing corridor in the southeastern United States." This could strengthen the overall U.S. aerospace base.

The argument that European nations, especially France, help pay for the lower-cost A330 is great. An aircraft that costs less for the same (or superior) performance is good for American taxpayers. We have previously procured foreign-developed and even foreign-built aircraft in the past-the British AV-8 Harrier, the French HU-25 Guardian and HH-65 Dolphin, and the Italian MH-68 Stingray; the U.S. services have also bought foreign-developed missiles, fire control systems, uniforms, and even ships. At the same time, foreign nations -- often under "buy-back" agreements -- use American-built aircraft, missiles, torpedoes, communications gear, and more. Indeed, the French Air Force flies Boeing-built KC-135 tankers as does Turkey and Singapore.

It is difficult to understand what "secret" American technology would be lost if the U.S. Air Force uses foreign-built tankers. Today the U.S. Air Force refuels foreign tactical aircraft, and the U.S. military aircraft regularly refuel from foreign tankers. And, the various services have regular personnel exchanges and share technical data on their tankers.

The KC-45 tanker buy will see the procurement of up to 179 aircraft for approximately $35 billion.

The Air Force selection used a "best value" determination to select a winner on the basis of mission capability, proposal risk, past performance, cost/price, and an integrated fleet air refueling assessment. The Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Duncan J. McNabb, has said, "The tanker is the number one procurement priority for us right now."

The new aircraft is needed. The competition was fair and transparent. For several reasons, the A330MRTT was the right selection. Time to move on.

-- Norman Polmar

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