I’ve mentioned before that military procurement is utterly broken. Nothing exemplifies this as much as the Air Force’s KC-X tanker procurement program.
Look, an airborne tanker is not exactly cutting edge technology. The Air Force has been doing it for over 60 years. And the technology hasn’t changed much at all. But the majority of the current Air Force tanker fleet is old. The KC-135 went into service in 1957, and the production run ended in 1965.
For over a decade, the Air Force has tried to manage a modest program to buy 100 tankers to replace some of the oldest KC-135s. At first, the Air Force didn’t actually want to buy the tankers, but instead worked out a complicated lease scheme where they would engage in a 10-year lease of 100 tankers built on the Boeing 767 airliner. The thinking was that they could get the tankers for 10 years for less than an outright purchase would cost. At the time, the Air Force was desperate to save procurement money so it could be spent on a larger purchase of F-22 fighters. The Air Force rather cynically figured that at the end of the lease period, Congress would either pony up the money for another lease, or enough for a outright buy. This scheme blew up in their faces when Sen. John McCain called them on it. It turned out there were some shennanigans involving inappropriate conduct by civilian Air Force officials as well.
The end result that the KC-767 lease scheme died an ugly death, and the Air Force was forced to open bids for a tanker contract. Enter Airbus. While Boeing was hoping for KC-X orders to keep its 767 line open, Airbus was facing a similar problem with the end of production for its A330 airliner. Airbus partnered with Northrup Grumman to enter a bid to build tankers based on the A330 design in the US.
While the US is generally loathe to buy a foreign design, the partnership changed things. By proposing to open a plant in the US (with the resulting good paying jobs in the US) several members of Congress started thinking that buying Airbus might be a pretty good idea.
Here’s the thing. The specifications for the new tanker weren’t written so much with replacing the KC-135 in mind, but with slanting the competition in a direction that would lead to one possible conclusion. The fact is, either aircraft would be a big improvement over a 45 year old KC-135. But no matter who won the competition, the other side would sue to protest the decision. And they would have considerable political clout on their side.
Right now we’re on round three of the competition. 10 years in, and we are no closer to putting any new aircraft on the ramp. And in that time, the costs of both prospective platforms have increased, budget dollars have gotten tighter, and both platforms are actually becoming less appealing because they are both becoming more obsolescent. And no matter which way the Air Force decides, there will almost certainly be another lawsuit protesting the decision.
This is (much like the LAARA program) a case where, while I have a platform preference, that’s a far less important consideration than actually choosing a platform, and moving ahead.
I’m giving the Air Force a hard time here, but they are hardly alone in being unable to buy anything. This is a thorny issue for all DoD purchases, with an almost incomprehensible procurement regulations, and the ever helpful involvement of Congress trying to ensure that good paying defense jobs go to the proper congressional districts.