For years, MacDill Air Force Base has been waiting for new refueling tankers to start replacing its aging fleet. For years, the Air Force has not been able to deliver because of problems with the bidding process. The Pentagon needs to make sure the third time is the charm and that the new bidding process is free from the politics and insider dealing that have stalled the project for nearly a decade.
The new planes would replace the KC-135 Stratotankers that the Air Force has been flying since the Eisenhower administration. Having the ability to refuel in-flight extends America's military reach, which is essential in the fight against terrorism in Central Asia and the Middle East. The Air Force has been working since 2001 to replace the tankers, but both previous bids were thrown out. A deal with Boeing fell apart in 2004 after an Air Force official and a company executive were caught in an ethics scandal. The Pentagon overturned the award last year to Northrop Grumman after congressional investigators said the Air Force mishandled the bids and wrongly calculated the long-term costs of the planes.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates looks determined to avoid a three-peat. His requirements for the aircraft should make it easier to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the bids. Gates wants to examine the lifelong costs of the planes, not just the up-front manufacturing costs. The Pentagon will switch from a cost-plus to a fixed-price contract, which will create an incentive for the winner to build the plane on time and on budget. Defense officials also have said the bidding process will be more open and transparent than the previous two attempts. While that is expected, given all the previous problems, it is the right message to send at the outset of what again will be a highly fought government contract. The first stage, for 179 planes, is worth $35 billion.
The Air Force cannot afford to botch this contract again. While officials say the Stratotankers are safe, the aircraft are 50 years old. Maintenance is becoming harder and more expensive. The base commander at MacDill told the Times recently that MacDill has its own shop to fabricate spare parts for the airplanes because some parts are not available anywhere else. A modern fleet of tankers is essential to give the military the mobility it needs to fight today's threats: stateless enemies who wage war at any time and on any front.
The only issue for the Air Force is procuring a plane that meets its mission requirements for the right price. Members of Congress — with their eyes on the jobs these contracts can bring home to their districts — need to stay out of the way. This needs to be a fair and transparent choice of the best successor to the refueling fleet. American forces need them and America's bases — including MacDill — need them. The Air Force should ensure that this latest competition is aboveboard so that the tankers finally can be delivered.