Air Force Tanker Decisions Still Up In the Air

Last week, the controversial Air Force effort to replace its Eisenhower-era fleet of KC-135 air refueling aircraft took several new turns.

First, on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he was taking the contracting process away from the Air Force. Defense Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics John Young will head up a new team of contract professionals to revise the government’s request for proposals and evaluate new proposals from Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS consortium. Gates predicted optimistically that the process could be completed by the end of the year.

A day later Government Accountability Office (GAO) lawyers, Young and Air Force Acquisition chief Sue Payton testified before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee about the path forward on the tanker purchase.

The hearing was held to answer questions about the new procurement process and what the GAO saw wrong with the original result in which the multi-billion dollar contract had been awarded to the Northrop Grumman/EADS group for the European Airbus 330 aircraft over the competing Boeing tanker in February.

"This isn’t the first time the acquisition system has failed," said Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) chairman of the Air and Land Forces Subcommittee

“We have asked Mr. Gordon from the GAO to provide some context of the GAO decision relative to other protests, the GAO protest consideration process, and the details of their decision on the specific tanker protest…[and] we have asked Secretary Young to tell us about how he will proceed and what will be done differently in the new source selection to have a satisfactory acquisition outcome.”

It was later decided that Payton would testify before a closed-door session with committee members and staff.

Witness Daniel Gordon, Deputy General Counsel for the GAO, made a brief opening statement detailing the role that the GAO had played and the errors they uncovered in the acquisition process.

Subcommittee Ranking Republican Jim Saxton (R.-NJ) and Ranking Republican for the Armed Services Committee Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-CA) expressed frustration in the acquisition process, “How does a high priority acquisition program, with intense oversight and scrutiny at the highest levels if the Department of Defense, fall so short of the mark?” asked Saxton.

Both Hunter and Saxton read to Gordon from a column written for HUMAN EVENTS by Gen. John Handy former commander of Air Mobility Command, where he had responsibility for all Air Force tanker operations. Handy’s column outlines warfighter requirements for a modern air refueling tanker aircraft and shows where Northrop’s tanker does not meet these requirements.

Gordon repeatedly had to explain to subcommittee members that it was not the GAO’s role to examine the tankers performance but rather to examine the decision by the Air Force of why they chose that specific tanker. “We didn’t say that Northup didn’t meet requirements we decided that the Air Force didn’t explain or answer well enough why they had chosen Northrop,” said Gordon.

Young testified that Gates decided to take the decision to award the contract away from the Air Force "to maintain objectivity and to assure to all the interested parties that the process will be fair and equitable."

HUMAN EVENTS asked David Patterson, Executive Director of the National Defense Business Institute at the University of Tennessee if the decision to take the contract award authority from the Air Force was unusual. “I think that when programs get into trouble whether during execution or whether during the competition it is not precedent-setting nor should it be considered unusual for the Department of Defense to execute its oversight and to take responsibility for the programs.”

“The circumstances that surround this competition make it very difficult for the Air Force to do this without considerable scrutiny by everybody…The fact that they thought that they did it well to begin with, only to find out that the protest was upheld, speaks to a credibility that they no matter how well they preformed now they could not gain back the high ground and credibility,” said Patterson.

“I have great confidence in John Young,” said Patterson. “He is a very thoughtful and clearheaded executive in the Dept. of Defense and he was probably the only choice available to the Secretary, quite frankly.”

In prepared remarks Young said of the eight problem areas that the GAO upheld from Boeings protest (HUMAN EVENTS has previously reported about how these eight areas were show stoppers and why the Airbus aircraft is too big and too heavy to perform the tanker mission) all "are correctable" and "none of the findings suggest a concern with our acquisition strategy, and we will continue with a ‘best-value’ source selection approach, with the intention of awarding a single contract."

Gates and Young have said that they hope to complete the contract and replace the aging KC-135 refueling tankers, many of which were built in the 1950s by December 08’ (before the end of the Bush Administration) but in Thursday’s hearing Young admitted that it could take longer.

In Gates’ Wednesday press conference,Young stated that the issue of the financial subsidies Airbus receives from European nations — which amount to billions of dollars — will not be considered in the new proposal evaluation effort. This is sure to continue Congressional opposition to the process.

The United States’ complaint to the World Trade Organization, asking for penalties against Airbus for the subsidies it receives, has yet to be decided. It is unclear how the Defense Department can fairly evaluate the prices offered by the competitors without including some means of accounting for the subsidies.