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Critics: Tanker proposal won't fly

A study blasting a plan that would bring new refueling tankers to MacDill is seen as a final blow. But hope lingers.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published May 24, 2004

TAMPA - An Air Force plan to lease 100 new refueling tankers and send a third of them to MacDill Air Force Base seemed like a sure thing when the deal was announced last June.

House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young of Largo said the tankers were certain to boost MacDill's chances of staying open during the next round of military base closings in 2005.

Now the Air Force's $23.5-billion agreement with Boeing Co. is mired in scandal and controversy, and the deal appears to be dead.

Two company executives have resigned. A Boeing official who once worked for the Air Force recently pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy in connection with the agreement. There are nagging questions about the cost. And now a study by a Pentagon advisory board has cast doubt on whether new tankers are even needed.

"I think in light of the negative attention to the original contract, I really believe (the Air Force) will come up with a new contract," Young said Friday night. "And I believe it will be negotiated out in the open, so there is no question how it happened and why it happened."

The latest blow to the tanker deal came from the Defense Science Board, which concluded that the Air Force doesn't need new tankers immediately.

"There is no compelling material or financial reason to initiate a replacement program" before reviewing other options, the summary says.

The study echoed critics who said the current tanker fleet, which dates to the Eisenhower administration, is capable of flying into 2040. But the study also says some of the old tankers should be renovated in the near future, although not necessarily replaced.

A separate investigation by the Pentagon inspector general released in March questioned whether the Boeing tankers, which refuel aircraft in flight, could do the job in combat.

"The negative studies are stacked so high that it's hard not to believe now that the Boeing house of cards isn't headed for a fall," said Eric Miller of the Project on Government Oversight, one of several watchdog groups that oppose the deal. "Maybe it's not a win for the taxpayer yet, but it's a save."

Boeing officials insist that the tanker deal still is on track.

"The tanker is not dead," Boeing chief executive Harry Stonecipher told investors last week. "The customer has not changed its mind one iota about wanting the 767 tanker program. The moment that the customer says, "Hey, Boeing, we're not interested in this. This is too hard, we quit,' then we'll quit."

Young, who unveiled details of the tanker deal last summer, said he remains confident that new refueling tankers will come to MacDill. He said it's still possible that the tankers will arrive as originally scheduled in 2010, although he expects a delay.

The Air Force has acknowledged that buying the aircraft would be cheaper than leasing them and buying them later, as originally planned. The Air Force also says it would save $5-billion in maintenance costs by replacing old planes with new ones.

Since the deal was hatched in late 2001, critics led by Arizona Sen. John McCain have characterized it as a corporate bailout of Boeing. Last September, the Senate Armed Services Committee proposed a compromise. The new deal called on the Air Force to lease 20 tankers and buy 80 instead of leasing them all.

But critics say that as a result of the Defense Science Board study, even that proposal won't fly.

"The tanker lease deal is dead as disco," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, "but it's a question of what and when it will be replaced, and how you do that."

Ashdown, Miller and other government watchdogs say they believe the contract will have to be reopened and renegotiated, which could mean fresh competition for Boeing.

Young said he did not know whether the lease portion of the deal would survive.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who put the tanker program on hold, has said he will not make a final decision until the various studies have been completed. Young said Rumsfeld has set a Nov. 1 deadline for all of the studies to be done.

Ashdown predicted Boeing still will reach a tanker deal with the Air Force but on a much smaller scale.

"The political tides have absolutely changed because of just the absolute, overwhelming, unanimous message from everybody that the contract is a bad deal," he said.

Under the original plan, MacDill would get 32 KC-767-A refueling tankers, $202.1-million in military construction and 103 officers and 252 enlisted personnel. Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota would get 32 tankers each.

When the agreement was announced, Young said the move virtually ensured that MacDill, home to 12 KC-135s, would not be touched during the next round of base closures in 2005.

MacDill houses the 6th Air Mobility Wing; the U.S. Central Command, responsible for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the nation's secret commando units.

Al Austin, a Tampa businessman who serves on an advisory panel appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to keep Florida's military bases open, repeatedly has warned against relying too much on the new tankers.

Austin said Friday that Rumsfeld has spoken about moving the Central Command closer to the war zone. Austin also said that the Special Operations Command could be relocated.

"For us to assume that we don't have some risk," he said, "would be foolhardy."

Austin said an Air Force base needs more aircraft than the dozen stationed at MacDill. He said he has told colleagues on the state advisory panel to assess other bases that are likely to be closed and determine whether their aircraft could be stationed at MacDill.

Austin predicted that supporters of the tanker agreement in Washington will pursue it more aggressively after the November election.

"Right now, with all the expenses we're having for the war, it's not a good time to be talking about such an expensive deal," he said.

The deal began to unravel after the publicizing of a series of e-mails between Boeing and the Air Force, highlighting their cozy relationship.

Last month, a former senior Air Force official pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Darleen A. Druyun admitted that she negotiated an executive job at Boeing Co. while overseeing the tanker deal at the Pentagon.

In recent weeks, Pentagon-backed assessments have bolstered opposition.

The Defense Science Board, a civilian task force that advises the Pentagon on issues ranging from science to manufacturing, rejected the Air Force's primary argument for the new tankers.

The Air Force has insisted that the current fleet of 544 KC-135 tankers is plagued by corrosion and that maintenance costs are escalating.

But the DSB study said that corrosion is "manageable," and credited a "robust corrosion control program" by the Air Force. The study saw a need for a major tanker recapitalization down the line, although, it added, that "doesn't necessarily mean new aircraft."

The study said the Air Force had other options, including upgrading aircraft engines, converting retired commercial aircraft and contracting from companies such as Federal Express.

The study also questioned Air Force reliance on a Boeing aircraft with a 20-year-old design.

Young said other options, which he opposes, include buying aircraft from the French manufacturer, Airbus, or using DC-10s from Northwest Airlines.

Supporters of the deal aren't giving up.

On Thursday, the House approved an amendment requiring the Air Force to complete negotiations to purchase 80 of the Boeing tankers by March 1.

- Paul de la Garza can be reached at delagarza@sptimes.com or 813 226-3432.

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]


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