Why Block the Boeing Tanker?

For all the Pentagon’s protestations — and harsh words from the Government Accountability Office and Congress — the promise of a real competition between Boeing and Northrop-Grumman/EADS for a new generation air refueling tanker is apparently being broken. The Pentagon, based on its public announcements and all other reports, is apparently in the process of rewriting the terms of the competition to eliminate any chance of buying the tanker the warfighters need.

On June 18, the Government Accountability Office shot down the Air Force decision to award the contract to the NG/EADS consortium, finding that the Air Force had treated Boeing unfairly in the competition by negotiating dishonestly. It also overturned the decision because the Air Force didn’t evaluate either the Boeing or the NG/EADS proposals in accordance with the criteria it had announced. Soon after, Defense Secretary Bob Gates took the contracting authority away from the Air Force and gave it to John Young, the current Defense Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Young will decide which tanker is bought if the decision is made before the Bush administration’s term ends.

On August 6, the new “request for proposals” — the document on which the competitors base their proposals — was announced in a Pentagon press conference. Mr. Shay Assad — who works for Young — gave a description of a document that is written to paper over the Air Force’s mistakes and produce the same result: the choice of the French Airbus over the Boeing aircraft. (Undersecretary John Young did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article.)

Assad said that the GAO’s grounds for overturning the Air Force decision to buy the Airbus are all being corrected. And apparently they are, in precisely the way I’ve observed in too many cases in my practice of bid protest law over three decades.

The GAO can only make a government agency follow the rules. If an agency loses a GAO protest case, as the Air Force did with the tankers, it can rewrite the request for proposals so that it will be following the rules and still compel the result it reached in the first place. Which, unfortunately, is just what the Defense Department is up to.

For example, the GAO said the Air Force broke the rules by giving more credit than the announced criteria allowed for the added fuel offload capability of the large Airbus, and by misleading Boeing on how much credit the additional fuel offload capacity could earn. Now, according to Assad, the competition will clearly state that the huge offload capacity — much larger than the mid-sized Boeing 767 can possibly provide — will be counted heavily, much more so than the original competition allowed.

That, among other criteria, is rewritten to favor the huge Airbus, even though it’s too big and too heavy to perform the mission.

When Boeing protested the Air Force action to the Government Accountability Office, it quickly became clear that the Air Force decision was driven by faulty data on the number of airfields the huge aircraft could operate from. As I reported in April, the Airbus is too big and too heavy to operate from a substantial number of the more than 1600 airfields USAF tankers must be able to use. (One Northrop consultant told me that the tanker only has to fly out of about 70 airfields. Which, in the immortal words of Col. Sherman Potter of M*A*S*H, is “horse puckey.”) None of the faulty analyses are apparently going to be redone by the Defense Department.

Most disturbingly, some of the Air Force’s flight safety procedures may even be sacrificed on the altar of Airbus. The GAO decision said that the A330 is too heavy and too slow to perform maneuvers called “breakaways” and “overruns”. Newton’s laws of physics are the same wherever you go, and bad things happen when you try to break them. As I wrote on July 25, the A330 — because it cannot perform these maneuvers in accordance with long-established Air Force procedures — is not even eligible to be chosen for the contract. What is most startling is the degree that the Air Force was willing to go to avoid picking the Boeing aircraft.

In overruns, the orbiting tanker is supposed to swing out of orbit and fall in on the receiving aircraft’s course ahead of the receiver. If it comes out behind, the tanker is supposed to climb and accelerate while the receiver drops speed and altitude.

In breakaways, the receiving aircraft — due to anything from pilot error or a gust of wind — breaks the safety envelope of the refueling process. The tanker disconnects the boom, accelerates and climbs, while the receiver — again — cuts its speed and dives.

The GAO decision shows how desperate the Air Force was to pick Airbus. On page 40 of its decision, the testimony of one high-ranking Air Force witness showed that the Air Force knew the Airbus couldn’t accelerate fast enough — and that the top speed it’s capable of (implied to be about 330 knots) was too slow to meet Air Force standards for overrun and breakaway maneuvers.

So how did the Air Force judge the Airbus was able to meet minimum requirements? By saying that — in a power dive — the Airbus could reach a speed of 365 knots.

All you pilots out there: you’ve each been doing breakaways and overruns for years in the way the USAF flight manual requires for your aircraft. When you refuel, you’re behind the tanker and he’s in front. And now, while you try to get off the boom and dive away from the tanker in a breakaway, the only way you may be able to avoid a collision is if the tanker dives past your nose and accelerates past the maximum speed the tanker is certified by the FAA to withstand. Like that much, guys? I didn’t think so.

This new request for proposals should be shot down in flames. If, as Clemenceau said, war is too serious a business to be left to generals, the business of buying the tools of war is too serious a business to be left to politicians and bureaucrats. The warfighters need to be put in control of this procurement, and the procurement types should be forced to stand aside.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force’s new Chief of Staff, has the crown jewels in his hands. His is the responsibility to ensure that the new tanker is right from the warfighters’ standpoint. This means one that can be based anywhere it should be to make sure the guys can fly and fight wherever they need to, that has the speed and acceleration to meet USAF standards for overruns and breakaways, and does everything else the warfighters need, not what some pencil pusher wants.

If Schwartz and the other warfighters don’t stand up to Gates and Young on this, our Air Force will be saddled with a tanker that reduces our air combat and air transport capabilities for at least the next four decades.