Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tanker Replacement Deal Needs Secretary of Defense Help

The contract award for the Air Force tanker replacement is now a political hot potato that Air Force acquisition officers should not be expected to handle alone. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates should take on a much larger role as the contract award unfolds. This is not an indictment on the Air Force, but rather an acknowledgement that only the Secretary of Defense has sufficient clout to deal with congressional pressures being generated by the politically charged issue. The Air Force, with only one-fifth of the total DOD budget is just a small frog in a very large pond. Even its top officials are several layers down in the political pecking order of Washington DC. It simply lacks the ability to weather the political consequences of the $35 billion winner-take-all tanker replacement contract award.

When the original tanker replacement contract went out the window in 2004, the Air Force became the proverbial golf ball on a tee. Regardless of which company won the subsequent contract, the loser was bound to tee off on the Air Force. Now, Senator John McCain (largely responsible for derailing the initial contract in 2004) and Senator Barack Obama are calling for yet another redo in the competition. But it is safe to say that any competition not managed at the DOD level will end in the much the same way. The loser will once again tee off on the Air Force – leaving it to be savaged by Congress, the GAO, and the media once again.

Because the tanker replacement effort has become a battleground issue in Congress, there is no realistic chance that the contract will ever go to a single winner. As long as either contestant holds to the illusion that they can run away with the entire contract, no one will win - leaving Air Force tanker crewmembers to fly aging aircraft that were introduced to the fleet when their grandparents were dancing at the sock-hop. In the end, the final tanker replacement contract need not totally satisfy Boeing or Northrop Grumman/EADS, but it must give all members of Congress who have up until now been vocal in support of one side or the other, a chance to tell their constituents and donors that they have forged a compromise deal where no one achieves total victory, but where no one walks away as a total loser either.