March 4, 2008

Buying French tankers a poor decision

Note: While not specifically related to the Middle East, American military forces will rely on the replacement tanker for the KC-135 and KC-10 for decades to come - that includes operations in the region.

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Buying French tankers a poor decision
Francona: It's a bad move on national security grounds alone

Artists concept of KC-45A refueling a B-2 bomberThis tanker aircraft KC-30 (now the KC-45A) is made by Northrop Grumman, which partners with a European company. The U.S. military chose them over Boeing to build airborne refueling planes.

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

A decision by the U.S. Air Force to use foreign-made planes over domestic ones is causing a stir in some U.S. military circles.

On Friday, the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman Corp. a $35 billion contract to build airborne refueling planes. While Northrop Grumman is an American corporation, it is actually the American partner of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS), the parent company of Airbus. If the deal stands, the U.S. Air Force refueling fleet will take to the skies beginning in 2013 in a European-designed and built tanker based on the Airbus A330 airliner.

The military chose Northrop Grumman's bid or a competiting one from Boeing, who proposed a tanker based on its 767 airliner. The deal over the lifespan of the contract could be worth as much as $100 billion.

The A330 is built in Toulouse, France. Northrop Grumman/EADS has committed to the “final assembly” of the KC-45A in Alabama, but it is difficult to determine how much of the aircraft will actually be manufactured in the U.S., or whether the factory in Alabama has been built. With the economy slowing, fears of recession and Congress about to add over $150 billion to the deficit in a rebate program designed to stimulate consumer spending, the Air Force decides to buy a foreign aircraft.

When asked about the foreign nature of the contract, General Arthur Lichte, commander of Air Mobility Command, operator of the USAF refueling fleet, bristled: “This is an American tanker. It’s flown by American airmen. It has a big American flag on the tail, and every day, it’ll be out there saving American lives.”

Nice try, general. Painting an American flag on the tail of an aircraft does not make it an American tanker. It makes it a French tanker with an American flag on the tail.

The key issues here are the effect of this contract on the U.S. economy and the potential impact on our national security. While presidential candidates criticize American companies for exporting jobs, we have the Defense Department planning to do just that. These are not minimum wage jobs and these are skilled jobs in the high-technology aviation industry.

According to Boeing, had it won the contract, it would have meant the creation or retention of about 44,000 jobs in the United States. Although Airbus claims its contract will “support” 25,000 jobs, it is difficult to see how. At most, 2,000 new jobs is probably more accurate and Airbus has a history of overestimating these things.

Costs aren't just financial
Congress still has to fund this contract. At a time when we are facing record oil prices and a declining dollar, should we be exporting jobs and procuring a foreign military aircraft? How much will spare parts cost if prices are tied to the Euro?

To be fair, Airbus builds a quality aircraft. The A330 airframe is larger than the Boeing 767 and thus carries a larger payload, fuel, cargo or troops, farther. That said, if the Air Force wants or needs a longer range tanker-transport, it should have made that part of the initial requirement. The Boeing 767 meets the Air Force requirement as stated. If the Air Force had stated a requirement for longer-range transport capabilities, there is a Boeing option based on the larger 777 airframe.

I suspect Boeing will exercise its right to protest the award of the contract to Northrop Grumman/EADS. Historical precedent for successful challenges is not promising, but there is an added vital component here — national security.

Relying on foreign suppliers of military equipment is not in our national security interests. What if France decides it does not support or condone a future American military operation somewhere in the world and prohibits French companies from supplying parts to the U.S. armed forces? The new tanker will be the backbone of the American refueling fleet for the next half century. We cannot predict the long-term political situations in other countries that could affect our access to spare parts.

To add weight to the national security argument, let us not forget that we have done the same thing to other countries in the past. For example, Pakistan and Libya ordered and paid for American-built aircraft, F-16 fighters and C-130 transports, respectively, only to find that delivery was blocked by Congress. We should not put ourselves in a position to have our foreign policy held hostage by the whims of another country.

The Airbus A330-based tanker is a fine aircraft, but it is a fine French aircraft. The United States Air Force needs an American aircraft.