There's been a growing drumbeat -- both on and off Capitol Hill -- to split the $35 billion U.S. Air Force replacement refueling tanker contract between rivals Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS.
But at least three key senators have yet to be won over by the argument.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) say they were not taking a position on the idea raised by two powerful subcommittee chairmen in the House. Collins and Nelson sit on both the Armed Services Committee, which authorizes defense spending, and the Appropriations Committee, which doles the money out.
Splitting the tanker buy, an idea which has been floating around for a while, started picking up steam last month when Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, suggested it as a way to get around the political wrangling and procedural missteps that have delayed replacement of the Eisenhower era KC-135 tankers.
Shortly after that, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s air and land forces panel, also spoke in favor of dual sourcing for the replacement tanker fleet. EADS, which won the last competition but then saw it thrown out after congressional auditors determined the Air Force goofed up how it ran the competition, says it would probably bid on the tanker program again – even if the contract is split.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates remains adamant that a split purchase would be more expensive and burden the Air Force with two separate aircraft requiring separate training, maintenance and logistical support. Plus, existing tankers would still be flying during the transition period, complicating logistics further.
“I think I will pay attention to what Secretary Gates says … he’s in a better position to know what the impact of that decision more than almost anybody else I could think of,” Nelson told me yesterday. Collins also wants to hear what Gates has to say first.
Levin says he’s “going to withhold judgment until we get a recommendation from the Defense Department.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee says it has no plans to hold a separate hearing on the split tanker buy – although Gates may be asked about it when he testifies before the panel April 30 on the supplemental war funding bill.
KC-135 photo: courtesy of DoD