Too Big, Too Heavy

The mission of the US Air Force is to fly and to fight. Everyone in the Air Force’s job falls into one of three categories: to do the flying and fighting, to command those who do, or to support them. Part of supporting the warriors is to buy the best aircraft to accomplish the mission at lowest risk. Which is why the Air Force’s decision to buy urgently-needed tanker aircraft from the Northrop Grumman – EADS consortium must be reversed.

That decision — announced on February 29 — could not be judged quickly or without consulting with experts on both sides of the controversy. Air mobility experts, two former chiefs of staff of the Air Force and other experienced warfighters gave me very different opinions.

My reluctant conclusion is that the Air Force’s decision is profoundly wrong. I base it on two facts: first, the warfighters need a tanker that isn’t so big and heavy that it is unable to deploy on many of the world’s airfields; and second, the Air Force is taking an unreasonably high risk on the NG– EADS aircraft.

Congressional whiners and populist pundits are suffering a case of the vapors over the decision to award the contract (for an estimated $40 billion) to NG-EADS because American jobs will be exported to France. To be sure, US jobs and tax dollars will go to the subsidized French Airbus company — a subsidiary of EADS — whose A-330 will be modified into the tankers. But it was Congress that imposed a procurement system under which the Air Force was required to have competition for the sole US company capable of building the tanker — Boeing — and it is Congress that enabled foreign companies to compete.

Tankers aren’t glamorous. They are big, heavy and drab. But without them, America would not be a superpower. There are not that many places in the world in which American combat aircraft can land to refuel. Without tankers showing up in the right places at the right times, fighters can’t fight, bombers can’t bomb and transport aircraft can’t deliver troops, supplies, or disaster relief to far corners of the world in a matter of hours.

Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper (who has consulted for Northrop Grumman on other programs) told me that he believed the tanker procurement was “squeaky clean” and that the warfighters would get what they need from the NG-EADS aircraft because it met all the requirements set by the Air Force.

Air mobility experts point out that we don’t run out of bulk cargo and passenger-carrying capacity. The Civil Reserve Air Fleet — civilian airliners and cargo aircraft that can be called into service by the Air Force in a crisis — provide tremendous capacity to carry people and cargo, but not jet fuel. But our warfighting ability is limited by the number of tankers and how and where they can be deployed.

Deployability is critical because tankers are bad tenants. Most runways can’t handle their weight and their size limits the number that can be stationed on any airfield. The bigger and heavier the tankers are, the fewer airfields can accommodate them.

The Boeing tanker, a version of the 767 jetliner, has a maximum takeoff weight of 395,000 pounds. It’s 159 feet long and has a wingspan of 156 feet. The NG-EADS Airbus 330 tanker’s max weight is 507,000 pounds. It is 192 feet long and has a 197-foot wingspan. My best scientific wild guess is that the NG-EADS aircraft will be unable to operate out of at least 20% of the airfields that could accommodate the right-sized Boeing tanker.

How the Air Force allowed this to happen is nothing short of bizarre. The warfighters are supposed to control the “requirements” — the criteria the aircraft must meet — and the procurement pukes are supposed to apply those criteria to choose which aircraft will be bought. But somehow, in mid-stream, the criteria were changed without the warfighters’ knowing about it. Critical criteria including maximum takeoff weight and clearance between wingtips while parked were changed to skew the competition to favor the larger Airbus.

Gen. Ronald Fogelman — former Air Force chief of staff (and before that, commander of what is now Air Mobility Command which operates the tankers) is a Boeing consultant. He disputed that idea: “Anybody who thinks that somehow they’re going to dual-use these airplanes in a crisis and get benefit from both tanker and cargo-carrying capacity just doesn’t understand the way these things get used.”

Fogelman’s point is well-taken. For every hour a tanker is diverted to other purposes, every other aircraft that depends on the tankers has one less hour to fly.

One senior retired officer who requested anonymity told me that when the changes were revealed he called several officers high in the chain of command and they all reacted by asking “what are you talking about?” Now they know.

The other huge problem is the risk inherent in the winner’s inexperience and plan to build the aircraft. Boeing tankers have been delivering fuel in flight for over 50 years. NG-EADS has delivered fuel to an aircraft in flight through a “boom”, the crane-like device that is extended from the back of a tanker and through which fuel is delivered, precisely once. And NG-EADS promises to assemble the aircraft in a new plant in Alabama that isn’t built, using a new workforce that hasn’t ever built a tanker.

I’ve been down this path before.

Seventeen years ago, I sat in my Pentagon office wondering what went wrong and how to fix it. A top-secret Navy attack aircraft program (which we know now was the A-12) had turned into a disaster. I hadn’t been cleared into the program, so despite my fancy security clearances and title I couldn’t even find out what had happened far less try to fix it. My boss had done a bad job of judging how the program was doing and had told the Secretary of Defense (a gent named Cheney) that all was well when it wasn’t. The big boss had passed that opinion on to Congress with embarrassing results.

My puzzlement ended when a familiar large head leaned into my office. Its owner smiled and asked, “Jed, you got a minute?” This friend, whom I count among my mentors, was a retired Air Force four-star general and had been commander of Air Force Systems Command. AFSC ran all aircraft procurement for USAF, so he knew a thing or two about building airplanes.

The explanation he gave was horribly simple. My boss had been shown an empty factory floor by the CEO of General Dynamics (now a part of Northrop Grumman), on which chalk rectangles marked the spots where specialized machinery would be placed to produce the A-12. And the CEO told my boss that they’d be turning out aircraft in 18 months or less.

Which sounded perfectly reasonable to my boss, whose previous career had been in the automobile industry. He was used to retooling factories and retraining workers every year to build new cars. He didn’t know you can’t do that for complex aircraft. It takes 18-24 months just to get the special tooling and test equipment (known in the aerospace biz as “STTE”) you need, and only then can you train your workforce to use it. My boss fell for the CEO’s yarn and the A-12 program produced a lawsuit but no aircraft.

NG-EADS promises to deliver about fifty tankers in the next five years. The component sections will be built in European plants and shipped to Mobile, Alabama to be assembled. But they haven’t broken ground for the Mobile factory yet. Whatever empty lot is chosen can’t be turned into the KC-45 plant for at least two years. Then — if you make the false assumption that you know exactly what STTE you need now, and order it today — you still have to install it, hire and train your workforce and organize to assemble and test-fly the aircraft.

If they can deliver fifty aircraft from Mobile in five years I’ll parachute from the 50th at 20,000 feet wearing my tuxedo. The risk inherent in this scheme is enormous, and it means that the NG-EADS aircraft is a huge mission risk measured in time. They will be years late in producing the aircraft, the costs will increase greatly, and tankers won’t be where we need them when we do.

The Government Accountability Office will rule on the Boeing protest against this contract in the next several months. But the GAO — as I know from three decades of trying cases like this before it — cannot rule on anything more than the legalities of what the Air Force did. Its authority does not extend to judging the effect on our warfighting capability.

Before GAO acts, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates must. He should call in all the combatant commanders and all of the Air Mobility Command former bosses he can find who aren’t working for one of the competitors. Get to the bottom of why the warfighters were apparently ignored. And fix this before billions of dollars and precious years are spent on what may reduce the Air Force’s ability to fly and to fight.