Jun 10 2008

Pro-Boeing rhetoric on tanker doesn’t add up

The Hill

By Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) 

Since the Feb. 29 decision by the Air Force to select the Northrop Grumman/EADS KC-45 tanker over the Boeing KC-767, several congressional members have attempted to overturn this decision by waging a public relations campaign based on misinformation and rhetoric. We find this approach both unfortunate and a disservice to our men and women in uniform.

From the outset, the objective of the acquisition was clear: acquire the best new tanker for the Air Force. After the 2003 scandal surrounding the leasing of 100 Boeing KC-767s, Congress and the Air Force embraced competition to procure a new tanker. As a direct result, the Air Force is now in a position to buy 179 tankers for approximately the same price Boeing was going to charge for leasing 100 KC-767s. The Air Force, in a full and open competition, determined that the KC-45 was superior to the KC-767 in four of the five categories considered. The KC-45 is newer, larger and can carry more fuel, pallets and troops. Its technology is more advanced, 15 years newer, and it is more versatile and capable than the KC-767. The United Kingdom, Australia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also selected the newer, more capable tanker over the KC-767 in the past four international tanker competitions, leaving no doubt about the best.

As is its right, Boeing protested the award and we currently await a June 19 recommendation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). However, Boeing supporters are already attempting to lay the groundwork for congressional action regardless of the GAO’s outcome. They must predict, as do we, that the GAO will not have any dramatic revelations that would negate or adversely impact the original decision. Therefore, they are left to spreading misinformation and false accusations.

In a recent op-ed, some of our colleagues from Washington and Kansas stated, “Congress has a responsibility to consider a wide range of issues that the Pentagon and the GAO were either unable to consider or chose to completely ignore.”

As these colleagues pointed out, Congress is an independent branch of government, and as such, we acknowledge that it is well within Congress’s right and ability to alter defense procurement laws. However, why did these members not raise their concerns about the supposed effects on the U.S. industrial base and alleged national security fears when the two draft Request for Proposals (RFP) were issued or during the numerous congressional hearings held before the award was announced?

In their skewed argument, they state that the GAO is not allowed to factor in these sorts of outlying issues that were not considered in the competition. What they do not acknowledge is that the Air Force followed the laws Congress passed, stating only certain factors would be considered. In short, the Air Force did exactly as it was instructed to do by Congress, to include Boeing’s congressional supporters, who raised no concerns at the time.

We know that it is within Congress’s right and ability to alter defense procurement laws. But we also agree with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that changing the law now based on protectionist sentiment should be approached with caution. The global environment in which we live makes it virtually impossible for any major military product to be 100 percent American-made — especially when we’re seeking the best. Moreover, U.S. firms supply billions of dollars worth of American-made equipment to foreign countries.

Our colleagues clearly are not considering the very real and significant threat of economic retaliation posed if we develop a newly protectionist sentiment. And certainly, we should not retroactively apply these potential new laws to defense procurements that have already been decided.

Congress should play an active role in assuring that our military has the best equipment possible. And Congress is already intimately involved in defense acquisition through both process oversight and funding decisions.

But there is a reason that Congress does not issue contract awards — parochial interests should not cloud the decision-making process of our defense acquisitions. If our colleagues were so concerned that the acquisition process was skewed, if they truly believed the process was fatally flawed, wouldn’t we have heard their concerns before an award was reached?

Finally, we also need to remember the consequences of our colleagues’ argument that they would rather have the Air Force procure a more expensive, antiquated plane that clearly does not meet the needs of our armed forces nearly as well as the KC-45, simply because the winning tanker does not meet their definition of American-made. As a reminder, Mobile, Ala., where the KC-45 will be assembled, is in America.

Just because you do not like the outcome does not mean the rules should be changed when the game is over.

Among other committees, Shelby serves on Senate Appropriations, Sessions on Armed Services and Bonner on House Budget.