With considerable understatement, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley called the award of the contract for a new aerial refueling tanker “a long-overdue start to a much-needed program.”
The current aerial tanker, the KC-135, while a wonderful workhorse of an aircraft, is, in aviation years, an antique.
Like the B-52s, the planes are older than the pilots flying them.
The first KC-135 was delivered in 1957, as President Dwight Eisenhower was starting his second term, and the last one in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was president.
The KC-135 was based on another venerable design, the Boeing 707. While that plane did so much to popularize jet travel, it was largely out of domestic service by the mid-1980s.
Indeed, a replacement aircraft is long overdue. These flying gas stations, as they’re sometimes described, are vital to our ability to project air power and sustain operations in remote theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq.
So now the Air Force has awarded Boeing an initial contract of $3.5 billion to engineer and manufacture the first four tankers, a design based on its 767. That is the first installment in a $35 billion program to build 179 tankers, with the first 18 to be delivered by 2017. The deal could potentially be worth $100 billion if the Air Force decides to build more.
The Pentagon’s decision came as a shock to the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Agency, which thought it had the contract won and will almost certainly challenge the award.
It also came as a shock to the Alabama congressional delegation, in whose state the EADS tanker would have been built. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., dismissed the decision as “Chicago politics,” a dig at Boeing’s headquarters city and President Barack Obama’s hometown.
The Pentagon said both bids met its 372 mandatory requirements, but that the Boeing bid was more than 1 percent cheaper and “a clear winner.” (The tiebreaker, in the event of identical bids, was another 92 requirements.)
This is the third try over a 10-year period at replacing the KC-135. The first was a costly plan to lease 767s from Boeing that was killed because of a blatant conflict of interest between a top Air Force official and a Boeing executive.
The Government Accountability Office overturned a second try at awarding a contract, this time to a consortium of EADS and Northrop, because of “significant errors” in the bidding process.
Even this latest attempt was somewhat marred when two Pentagon officials were fired for inadvertently leaking confidential data from each company to the other.
If this deal works, 50 years from the time the Air Force knew it would have to think about a replacement for the KC-135, it will get one. That says something about the military’s procurement process, and it’s not good.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.