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Alabama senator holding up Obama nominees to force Airbus advantage in Air Force tanker competition.

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Shelby Shills for Airbus

Alabama senator holding up Obama nominees to force Airbus advantage in Air Force tanker competition.

Last week Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby put a “hold” on all Obama nominations for executive branch positions — about seventy all told – to pressure the Air Force into changing the terms of its “request for proposals” for the award of the multi-billion dollar air refueling tanker aircraft contract.  

The Northrup-Grumman/Airbus team plans to build some of the aircraft in Alabama, building a new plant and presumably hiring and training hundreds of Shelby’s constituents.

A spokesman for Shelby bemoaned the lack of a “transparent and fair” process for tanker acquisition, but what is clear from the senator’s announcement blocking presidential appointees is that bringing earmark dollars home to Alabama is more important to Shelby than what the Air Force, and the nation, needs for future defense.

Apparently the pork, and the jobs Shelby wants for his home state, rank above what the Air Force needs to replace the aged KC-135 tanker fleet. Shelby’s attempt to hold the appointment process hostage to gain political advantage toward landing Alabama a new aircraft assembly (not manufacturing, because the airframe components would be built in Europe) plant and an FBI explosives test center.

A single senator can stall a particular nomination almost indefinitely, a commonly used procedure for individual lawmakers wielding power to impede government process. Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions currently has blocks on two Pentagon appointees (not based on the Airbus question), but a blanket hold is considered a rare senatorial action.

Shelby spokesman Jonathon Graffeo said last week, "This decision impedes the US military … and ensuring American security worldwide." The senator’s blanket hold on some 70 presidential appointees, including a Pentagon position involved in the bidding process, does the same. The Air Force needs replacement tankers sooner rather than later with two wars being fought, the threat of aggression from North Korea and Iran, and the world’s dependence on the United States as the primary provider of air support for natural disasters such as earthquake stricken Haiti.

Shelby’s move comes on the heels of industry rumors that EADS-Northrup Grumman made a "tentative decision" last week to pull out of the bidding process as the consortium threatened to do last year.  This is the same tactic that EADS-NG employed in the competition which resulted in the award to EADS-NG last year, and which the Government Accountability Office struck down based primarily on the unsuitability of the Airbus 330 for the Air Force tanker mission.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon must move forward with the procurement, though he was hopeful both Boeing and EADS-NG will participate in the bidding for 179 aircraft contract worth $35 billion. Ultimately, the contract is likely to be extended to replace all 450 Eisenhower-era tankers, worth closer to $100 billion.

In a seemingly desperate move to include the foreign-consortium in the multi-billion dollar deal, the Aerospace Alliance representing Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, refloated the prospect of buying replacement tankers from both vendors. The Pentagon rejected that proposal last year when it was introduced by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee, and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, then-chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Air and Land Forces Subcommittee.

The Pentagon’s preliminary request for proposal, unlikely to undergo substantial modifications prior to its final RFP release due in mid-February, clearly favors a smaller, more versatile tanker with the capability to refuel all the aircraft in the military’s arsenal. And, the performance capabilities, computer flight control system, and structural integrity issues of EADS-Northrup Grumman proposed Airbus A-330 variant remain problematical.

The long-delayed tanker RFP process is a perfect opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to come together and show the type of bipartisan leadership the Tea Party movement and, after a dismal first-year reign, the president are demanding from our elected leaders. Petty political gamesmanship, pet pork-barrel aspirations, campaign donations, and lobbying partnerships must be put aside for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

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Written By

Robert M. Engstrom, a University of Arizona School of Journalism graduate is a former owner/partner of the Casas Adobes Courier in Tucson, a free-lance contributor to Human Events, the Santa Barbara News-Press and other publications. He spent 30 years as a professional aviator accumulating more than 12,000 flight hours in commercial aviation.

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