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This page was last updated on: October 17, 2008
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Department of Defense's
Shameful Tanker Decision

By Richard Shelby
U.S. Senate
Of all the potential outcomes to the United States Air Force tanker competition, the program’s cancellation was the least expected and the most shameful.

The decision by the Department of Defense to terminate a competitively awarded contract is an admission that the Department’s acquisition process is hopelessly and fundamentally flawed.

Why? Because the Northrop Grumman/EADS plane was rated higher than Boeing’s aircraft on four of the five factors used by the Air Force to score the proposals, and was equal on the fifth. The Northrop Grumman/EADS plane is larger, carries more fuel, is technically superior and is a proven design that is already flying for other nations. Even more significantly, we learned last month from John Young, the Department of Defense Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, that the competition’s winner, Northrop Grumman/EADS, would build the first 68 planes at a cost of nearly $3 billion less than Boeing.  That is a cost savings of $42 million per plane.

The Secretary’s decision was a complete capitulation to political pressure, entirely ignoring the dire need for new tanker aircraft, and shows, without question, that the warfighters’ needs are trumped by the political considerations of the Boeing supporters. In their minds, the warfighters’ needs are secondary in importance to ensuring that they maintain the union jobs at the Boeing facilities located in their states.

Boeing and its political supporters have now successfully derailed an acquisition they have already lost twice. Recall that a 2003 lease for 100 Boeing airplanes was rescinded after the discovery that the procurement process was rife with corruption -– costing taxpayers more to lease the planes than to buy them. This lease scandal sent Boeing and Air Force officials to prison for rigging the contract.

When this latest competition began in 2007, there was no uproar opposing a full and open competition for any company that could build a tanker. No politician complained that the Europeans might win the contract or that the process was unfair to Boeing. No one grabbed a podium or scheduled a press conference to declare that the tanker contract should be sole sourced to Boeing. This is because everyone believed that Boeing would win, no doubt about it.

In a lengthy, full and open competition, it was determined that the Northrop Grumman/EADS aircraft is the best tanker to meet the Air Force’s needs. And it was determined by those who will fly it. The focus of the competition was on what is the best plane, not where it is built. Boeing supporters should not lie to the American people about what they did and why. It had nothing to do with concern about exporting jobs and technology to Europe.

We are now jeopardizing the safety and security of our nation and those who fight for it simply because politics trumped logic, fairness and concern for the troops.

While Secretary Gates may characterize the decision to terminate the competition as a “cooling off” period, in fact, his conclusion clearly sends the message that only a Boeing tanker will be acceptable. The new defense acquisition policy has been stated: No Boeing, no tanker.  

When the next Administration takes office, it must rapidly implement a strategy to replace our aging tanker fleet. It is my sincere hope that the safety of our warfighters and the security of our nation will become the priority this time and that decisions will not be based on political pressures imposed by individuals who are far more concerned with keeping jobs in their states than they are with keeping our warfighters alive. I remain confident that given a fair and merit-based competition Northrop Grumman/EADS will prevail yet again.