PAUL DE LA GARZA
As a panel debates the cost, two members of Congress still expect a deal leading to 32 new refueling craft at the base.
WASHINGTON - House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Friday they still expect the Air Force to get 100 new refueling tankers despite the controversy over how to pay for them.
"The only issue is are we going to purchase them, lease them or have a lease-purchase program," said Young, R-Largo.
MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa was expected to get 32 of the planes, but Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner delayed a committee vote on the $21-billion deal Thursday. The Virginia Republican suggested leasing 25 new tankers from Boeing instead of 100 and said the Air Force could buy more aircraft through the regular procurement process.
"At the end of the day," Nelson said, "we're going to get the 100 planes and MacDill will be protected."
In announcing the tanker lease deal in June, Young said placing the additional aircraft at MacDill would help secure the base's future during the next round of base closures in 2005.
Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota also would get 32 new tankers each.
But Young cautioned Friday that MacDill supporters should not let their guard down. "I would never say don't worry," he said.
During the committee hearing Thursday, Warner and several senators from both parties pointed to studies that show leasing the aircraft would cost up to $6-billion more than buying them.
"I never really supported the lease program," Young said. "I wanted to buy them."
He said buying would be more cost-effective. Young said he was overruled on the lease-versus-buy option but did not elaborate.
Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoed Young's position.
"My question is not whether or not we ought to have the tankers," Nelson said. "My question is what is the cheapest finance method to the federal government and there is considerable doubt . . . that the lease is the cheapest cost."
Young agreed with Pentagon figures that show leasing 25 aircraft and buying the rest would be even costlier.
Marvin Sambur, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, estimated that the Warner proposal would cost 20 percent to 24 percent more than leasing all 100, in part because the Air Force would lose the advantage of a volume discount.
Young said he expected the issue to be resolved over the next several weeks.
Several studies have questioned the cost of the lease arrangement. The Pentagon's inspector general's office also is investigating charges that a former Air Force official involved with the tanker program - and who now works for Boeing - may have shared information with Boeing about a competitor's bid.
Referring to the lease agreement, Nelson said, "I smell something in the woodpile."
The Senate panel also wants the Air Force to conduct a study to see if there are less expensive ways to modernize the tanker fleet. The committee also wants a study on the impact of corrosion on the current tankers.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also will review the cost per aircraft under the lease agreement.