Sen. John Warner: Buy Some, Lease Some
Senate Armed Services
Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA) wants to get the Air Force
tanker controversy over with. Done. Fini. So he's come up with a
compromise plan that gets the Air Force the KC-135 replacements
quickly by having the government lease some and buy the rest.
That would be a little different than what the president
proposed. The White House wants to lease 100 Boeing 767 variants at
a total cost of $17 billion. But, as ANN has reported, watchdog
groups and Congressional critics of the deal say the price is
outrageous. They claim the lease deal would cost $2 billion more
than an outright purchase.
But the Air Force says time is not on its side. Sen. Pat Roberts
(R-KS) stood as the administration's lone champion for the lease
deal. In hearings Thursday, he whipped out a corroded section of
the belly from a KC-135 tanker and said the only way to fix the
problem would be to throw even more money at it in a costly
repair/refit operation. "I don't want the warfighter fighting in
this plane," he said.
And Then There's The Bureaucracy
Two billion dollars is, by anyone's reckoning, a lot of money.
But between the delays and reprioritizations that have made the
USAF tanker fleet one of the biggest antique warplane collection in
America (aside from the B-52 fleet), there are procurement rules
and procedures that work against the process of replacement. For
The Pentagon doesn't
have $17 billion in loose change lying around to lease a fleet of
aircraft -- especially when the newest thing flying in this
controversy is an allegation that Boeing beefed up the price of
each aircraft amidst its own financial crisis.
For that matter, the Pentagon doesn't have $12 billion in the
bank for a purchase deal on the 100 aircraft.
Congress apparently can't order a multi-year purchase funded on
the installment plan. But that sets a precedent that government
reformers have been trying to erase for years. The project would
be, in essence, unfunded every time a new payment came due. That
violates a government policy that says all projects must be funded
at the time of purchase.
The compromise deal put forth by Warner and company is an
indication of lawmakers' willingness to tackle the deal. That
corroded piece of KC-135 belly plating was a powerful visual aid
for those who back some sort of a fleet rejuvenation program. In
their willingness, members of the House and Senate seem willing to
bend the rules, to look at "unconventional" ways of drumming up the
necessary dollars. But even that willingness to roll with the
punches is drawing fire from those who say, again, it would set an
In the meantime, day and night, Air Force crews who have
arguably one of the most important gigs in the military, are
working with aircraft older than they are. And, as shown by that
belly plate in Thursday's hearing, there's not much time to waste.
It'll have to be left until later to find out why the problem of
tanker fleet replacement had to become a major military and
Congressional crisis before it was addressed.