Force Projection, the Industrial Base, and the U.S. Tanker Decision

The U.S. Air Force recently announced that it was awarding a $40 billion-plus contract to a consortium of Northrop Grumman and EADS — the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, of which the French aircraft manufacturer Airbus is a part — to provide the next-generation air refueling tanker.

The integrity of the Air Force’s selection process has been brought into question; and now rival competitor Boeing has filed a formal protest — its first in many years — with the Government Accountability Office. We will learn in June whether the Air Force’s process was fair, and was applied consistently to the two competitors.

But as important at the GAO’s report on the bidding process will be, it pales before a larger question in the minds of many: Has the United States, the world’s only superpower, willingly conceding that it has lost the industrial base that has heretofore served our needs to project power globally?

America’s global force projection capabilities reside principally in our Air Force and Navy. With its nuclear-powered submarines, and the aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers that comprise its carrier battle groups, the U.S. Navy can project American power wherever it is needed, but only the Air Force can get anywhere and everywhere in a matter of hours. With its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, and fighter fleets, the Air Force can project power around the globe, so long as it has its air-refueling tankers that enable those bombers and fighters to get to and stay in the fight. 

Although some of these strategic platforms could have been built abroad, they have been built in the United States throughout our history. Until the Air Force chose to have French-based Airbus build our next air tanker platform, there has been no serious suggestion in the United States government that America would be better served by inviting foreign leverage over any of the capabilities that, collectively, define our country’s ability to project power around the world. 

Is this the beginning of a trend? Would the U.S. Air Force now consider purchasing French missiles to modernize America’s aging ICBM fleet, or a French platform to replace the B-2 bomber?

The Navy seems to have gone in the other direction, taking pains to preserve a domestic industrial base to build American warships. Speaking of the U.S. Navy’s 1994 decision to have two U.S. shipyards split production for its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Secretary of the Navy John Dalton called the decision “a departure from the past practice of competitively procuring DDG-51 class ships and is the first step in a smart business strategy to determine and implement actions the Navy needs to take in order to maintain a healthy industrial base.”

That Clinton-era decision was confirmed by President Bush’s appointees, including the Navy’s Assistant Secretary for Research, Development, and Acquisition John Young, who admonished that “We need to take extra steps to manage the industrial base and make sure we have it there to produce those products we require.” And it was Bush’s Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Industrial Policy, Suzanne D. Patrick who called it “a widespread myth that we do not at all consider industrial base issues in our awards of contracts and in the way we think about strategies in procurement.”

And, when Congress became concerned by the potential consequences of an America unable to produce its own ships for the U.S. Navy, it decided that the ability to project power globally was of such importance that ensuring the viability of not one domestic shipyard, but two, would be necessary to ensure this capability.

Though foreign shipyards are certainly capable of building ships for the U.S. Navy, nowhere — not by the Clinton administration; not by the Bush administration; not by Congress — have we heard American officials conceding the American industrial base in building our warships to a foreign industrial base. 

Yet the U.S. Air Force has decided to do just that to the American air refueling tanker industrial base by selecting Airbus to provide its next-generation tanker.

Throughout our history, America’s ability to project power globally has depended on an industrial base necessary to manufacture our strategic platforms. Are we so suddenly and carelessly willing to become dependent on industrial bases far from our shores? 

Some may see this as progress. But I and others worry that it is that first spot of rust on the beam that left unattended, will spread, eroding its strength until it can no longer support the load we have so confidently trusted it to bear.