In the global war on terrorism, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also on other fronts around the world, U.S. pilots and soldiers rely on a thin and increasingly thread-bare lifeline of refueling tankers - the existing tankers are a half century old and date back to the days of Dwight Eisenhower - to keep them in the air and performing their missions. This lifeline is fraying even further after the troubling decision by the Pentagon to subcontract construction of a 21st century tanker fleet to the French-controlled company EADS.
This inexplicable decision transfers American air-based military superiority to a French-controlled cartel that has been implicated in a bribery scandal in Syria and has been caught proliferating technology to Iran and Venezuela. EADS is ultimately controlled by European governments that did not support our invasion of Iraq, prohibited U.S. military aircraft from flying through French airspace to attack Quadaffi’s Lybia, and have been implicated in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal.
The question is why? Why has the world’s last superpower given $40 billion to EADS when it has never built a tanker in its history? Boeing has built over 2,000 tankers over the past 75 years. The Department of Defense awarding the tanker contract to EADS is like buying a sports car from Kia instead of Ferrari.
The decision is all the more inexplicable given the inability of the large and unwieldy Airbus 330, which will be retrofitted as a tanker, to land and take off on many of the world’s airfields. The Airbus 330 has a wingspan of 197 feet, is 192 feet long, and weighs 507,000 pounds. This massive size means that it, according to data provided by Boeing and first reported by former deputy undersecretary of defense Jed Babbin, can only operate on approximately 408 airfields around the world, while the 767 tanker can operate on 811.
Airbus claims that the larger A-330 is superior because of its larger cargo capacity. But the U.S. doesn’t need a cargo transport plane - we already have the C-5 and the C-130; we need a tanker. A closer examination reveals that the Airbus 330’s superior size is actually a drag on its combat utility. In fact, the Boeing 767 can offload 2 million more gallons of fuel at a radius of 1,000 miles, and can operate in more places because it can land at more airfields. It is also 99 percent compatible with existing commercial and military equipment, whereas the A-330 cannot refuel some existing aircraft, including the Marine V-22 helicopter.
The survivability of the Airbus 330 is also a problem. Because it is so large, it will be an easier target for enemy fire. The Boeing 767 has superior armor and radar, which is why the Air Force ranked it as having five times the combat strengths as the Airbus 330.
The General Accounting Office, the Congressional watchdog, is currently reviewing the DOD award of the tanker contract to EADS. If the decision were made purely on the criteria of mission capability and survivability, the decision would not be hard. Indeed, EADS only won the competition after the Pentagon changed the criteria mid-stream on multiple occasions, often under Congressional pressure, and committed serious and glaring analytical and even mathematical errors, such as erroneously rounding the number of airfields on which the Airbus 330 could land.
One of the lessons hammered into us in Navy flight training was that even the most powerful fighters are utterly dependent upon access to fuel. When loaded for combat, jets like the F-18 may have as few as two hours’ worth of onboard fuel. Without access to dependable mid-air refueling, American airpower would be diminished to the point of ineffectiveness.
Under the EADS tanker contract, not only will our fighters be subject to limitations in access to critical refueling, but also taxpayers will take a bath. EADS claims that it can build the next-generation tanker for about the same as Boeing, primarily because it has received $30 billion in illegal subsidies from the French government. But that is only part of the story. Because the Airbus 330 is so large and weighs so much, it is a gas guzzler, burning about 25 percent more fuel per mission as the KC-767, the Boeing aircraft. With oil at over $100 a barrel, that translates into $25-$30 billion in higher fuel costs alone.
Nor is that all. EADS has no current manufacturing facility in the U.S. for the tanker, and promises to build one in Alabama. But here it loses a huge advantage to U.S.-based Boeing. The Air Force will have to build new tanker facilities and infrastructure that will cost a minimum of $12 billion and perhaps as much as $47 billion. So, in reality, the A-330 will cost taxpayers tens of billions in higher costs. In fact, these extra costs could easily total more than the tanker contract itself.
The U.S. has two-thirds of the world’s tanker fleet at a time when the far-flung war on terror, fought simultaneously over multiple fronts, has made them more vital than ever. To award this contract to a foreign company with an inferior airplane that is not fully mission-capable and costs billions more makes no sense. It is an insult to taxpayers, a slap in the face to U.S. manufacturing workers, and it only makes our war fighters more vulnerable. Congress should step in and reverse this bad decision.
Colin Hanna was a Naval officer and is president of Let Freedom Ring, a public policy organization.
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