Deal in Works to Buy Two, Not One, Aerial Tanker

Key members of Congress are exploring ways to order the Pentagon to buy two different planes as the Air Force’s next-generation refueling tankers.

A defense source tells HUMAN EVENTS that a split-buy between Boeing and European producer EADS would add at least $2.5 billion to a program already pegged at up to $40 billion for 179 aircraft.

"It is being argued as a jobs program," said the source. "The extra $2.5 billion would create jobs just like the stimulus bill."

The hope also is that a two-plane compromise will end stiff Democratic leadership opposition in Congress to giving the contract to a foreign company — the Air Force’s preferred manufacturer.

The move comes out of frustration: after more than a decade of the Air Force trying to pick the right aircraft, there is still no designated plane to replace a badly aging fleet of KC-135s to refuel combat and cargo aircraft in mid-air.

There are new indications the Pentagon is months away from starting another winner-take-all contract competition, after the last one was canceled by Defense Secretary Robert Gates last September.

The split-buy effort, led by Rep. John Murtha, one of the most powerful lawmakers controlling defense spending, would direct the Pentagon to fund two assembly lines — one for Boeing in Washington state, the other by a Northrop-EADS North America team in Alabama.

In a clear indication he wants a two-plane solution, Murtha visited Boeing’s production plant over the weekend and pronounced it ready to conduct a split-buy with EADS., the builder of Airbus.

With the Obama administration openly talking about cuts in certain weapon systems, the tanker deal remains one of the biggest prizes in future defense spending.

A defense source involved in the talks tells HUMAN EVENTS that Murtha would include split-buy language in the 2010 Pentagon budget. He controls the House version as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

The sticking point is the Senate. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who heads the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, would have to agree. Moreover, a split-buy might be a tough sell for Alabama’s two Republican senators.

They saw Northrop-EADs win the competition last years, only to have the prize taken away by the Government Accountability Office, which upheld a Boeing protest.

Gates delayed a repeat competition until the new administration took office. He told Congress the selection process could begin this spring.

But defense sources tell HUMAN EVENTS it is more likely the competition will not start until 2010. This is because key acquisition posts inside the Pentagon and Air Force will not be filled until later this year. The new team would then need time to draw up procedures and standards for Boeing and EADS to submit proposals.

Whether the new team will back two refuelers is unclear. But John Young, the outgoing Pentagon procurement czar, has told reporters he opposes the plan.

It would require the Air Force to establish two sets of everything: two assembly lines; two spare parts inventories; two crew training regimens; and two depot maintenance procedures.

A spokesman for Murtha did not return a reporter’s calls. Inouye’s office had no immediate response.