Saturday 2 October 2021 | 2 a.m
Americans love a good rivalry. Magic Johnson against Larry Bird, Red Sox against Yankees, or even Pepsi against Coke. Yet the big deal when it comes to sucking taxpayer dollars for defense contracts is the Boeing and Airbus slugfest. And while it might not make the same headlines as Batman vs. Superman, picking the right side of this brawl is important to our national defense, taxpayer pockets, and America’s combat readiness.
In modern warfare, air-to-air refueling is essential to the US Air Force’s mission “Fly, Fight, and Gain … Air Power Anytime, Anywhere.” The aging KC-135s – built by Boeing and the workhorse of Air Force power – began rolling off the assembly lines in the 1950s. Despite their longevity and stellar record, they need to be replaced.
The backstory of the bidding wars for new tankers between American Boeing and European Airbus is complicated and messy. Eventually, Boeing won the contract in 2011. It quickly introduced the KC-46 Pegasus. He’s had a few issues – which Boeing spent $ 5 billion of its own money to fix, which is certainly why the Air Force has confidence in the plane. So confident, he keeps ordering more. The KC-46 is already certified to refuel most of our country’s air defense fleet.
“As we work to rectify some discrepancies, we support the KC-46 and believe it will be an excellent resupply capability for decades to come,” Lt. Gen. David Nahom told National Defense Magazine.
The main problem that persists is with the remote vision system used to guide the boom for in-flight refueling from the cockpit. This only happens when the sun is low in the sky. Previous in-flight refueling was done manually by the boom operator at the rear of the aircraft. Boeing says the issue will be fully resolved by 2023.
One would think that this good news concerning the old planes built by a former American company would squarely put the chances of a new long-term contract on the side of Boeing. Instead, French company Airbus has taken smart steps to gain political support, including teaming up with Lockheed Martin to build its own tankers in Alabama. Yet it is becoming increasingly evident that politics is not aligned with the preferences of the Air Force.
Airbus’ partnership with Lockheed Martin prompted members of the Alabama congressional delegation to push all-in for Airbus. Airbus’s planes, a modified A-330, are expected to be assembled at Mobile, although the aircraft will require many European parts and systems.
The A-330 is bigger than its competitor Boeing – in fact, it’s too big. The wingspan of the A-330 refueller is 198 feet, compared to 156 feet for Boeing. The wingspan is still larger than the KC-10 in-flight refuellers – nicknamed “Big Sexy” – introduced in the early 1980s due to cargo requirements. The Airbus aircraft occupies twice as much floor space at a time when airspace is a priority and aerodromes around the world are strategically vital.
The size of the A-330 also makes it a heavy consumer of gas in the air. In Forbes, Loren Thompson, CEO of the Lexington Institute, points out that the Airbus refueler consumes 1,000 gallons of fuel per hour more than its Boeing counterpart. “Multiply the number of hours flown by the price of jet fuel, and operating costs over a 30-year life become much higher than with the KC-46,” Thompson writes.
Since the KC-46 is already an essential part of the Air Force’s mission, adding a redundant aircraft to the fleet means higher costs for maintenance and training. Taxpayers, troops and US national defense would be better served by a cheaper aircraft that is just a new version of the KC-135 – an aircraft that is still operational almost 70 years after it left the factory. Reliable longevity is another reason to support military equipment, and in this case, Boeing wins hands down.
From the WWII B-17 Flying Fortress to the advanced new F-15EX, Boeing’s heritage of contributing to the national defense of the United States is almost unmatched. It’s time to step back from the politics of fighting the tankers and look squarely at what is best for the United States
Ray Nothstine is an opinion writer for the Carolina Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.