One of the oldest ploys in the budget wars is to cut a program you absolutely, positively know Congress will fund no matter what you do. You move money from that program to one you know is on shakier ground. Then, when Congress funds both programs you can protest that it's something you really don't need and is pulling money from more deserving programs. Voila! You have zee cake and eat it too!
That seems the most logical explanation for the Obama administration's well leaked plans to delay the airborne tanker program by five years. There can be no other rationale explanation. This is the top priority of a remade Air Force, one run by a man who knows and loves tankers and other big planes that don't shoot at stuff. This is the top priority of Transportation Command, the people who fly big heavy stuff to Afghanistan, Iraq and anywhere else it is needed. I think you'll also find quite a bit of support for tankers from the COCOMS, who need them if they want to maintain global reach.
Unless the Air Force and everyone involved with tankers has been lying about how old and tired the planes are -- remember the engine struts on the KC-135 E models are suffering from corrosion and senior Air Force officials wanted them retired by the end of last year -- it is difficult to believe the country's military can be effective without one of its most unique capabilities. No other country possesses the ability to refuel dozens of planes in the air virtually anywhere in the world.
My colleague Josh Rogin broke the news about the Obama administration's plan to move the tankers out five years and kill the next generation bomber. The bomber has a tentative hold on life and losing its capabilities would be much less traumatic to the military than a tanker delay of five years.
Lawmakers are already expressing disbelief at the tanker decision. Josh's story contains pithy comments from senators and congressmen to the effect that the tanker decision will not stand.
I spoke with Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington today during the LCS hearing. Larsen, a Democrat, has been a rational supporter of the tanker program, largely supporting Boeing's efforts but also listening to the military and to his colleagues from states that would benefit from a Northrop win. "Unless something new and different has happened in the last four months, we still need a next generation tanker today, and not five years from now," he said.
Take his comments, along with those lawmakers quoted in Josh's story, and you get both a deep and clear bipartisan commitment to the tanker from Congress. We haven't heard from Rep. Norm Dicks yet, the powerful Democratic appropriator who will push for tanker money come hell or high water. But add his voice to all those other lawmakers, add a dollop of outrage and concern from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and the folks at TransCom, and you've got a tanker program no matter what OMB may recommend in its budget. Unless, of course, the tankers really aren't as bad off as the military has claimed...
If the Obama administration goes ahead with the decision to put the tanker program off for five years, it will have to provide detailed explanations to lawmakers and the public as to just what has changed in the last four months.