— Michael C. Sirak
July 29, 2008—Awarding contracts both to Boeing and Northrop Grumman and having each build new tanker aircraft for the Air Force at a rate of about 15 per year makes sense and should be considered as the way ahead to resolve the KC-X tanker program’s current legal impasse, former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told the Daily Report yesterday.
“I think a split buy right now is something that we have to examine,” Wynne, who stepped down as USAF’s top civilian on June 20, said during a sit-down interview. “This is an opportunity to resolve a very tense political issue and still maintain competition.”
The KC-X program is in the midst of a revised bidding process involving Boeing and Northrop Grumman, each with staunch backers on Capitol Hill determined to see their side prevail. Northrop won the original winner-take-all $35 billion contest for 179 airframes in February, with its KC-30 tanker design besting Boeing’s KC-767. But a ruling last month by the Government Accountability Office upholding Boeing’s legal challenge has reopened the contest, with the Office of the Secretary of Defense now overseeing the effort instead of the Air Force.
Pentagon acquisition czar John Young has said he intends toissue a revised solicitation in the coming weeks that addresses the specific points that the GAO upheld, but otherwise maintains the continuity of the original competition. But Boeing has already indicated its concern over what the amended solicitation might contain that could place its aircraft at an inherent disadvantage, thereby potentially portending new legal challenges that would add further delays to the tanker recapitalization effort.
Wynne said he hopes that the GAO will accept Young’s tack in trying to resolve the KC-X protest. “I worry because it is a very similar tactic to what I tried on the [combat search and rescue replacement vehicle program]—trying to simply address the issues that the GAO has brought forward,” he said.
The GAO did not accept Wynne’s approach to resolving the industry protests on CSAR-X and instead recommended that the Air Force reopen that competition more broadly, which USAF subsequently did. The Air Force is still in the midst of determining whether Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or Sikorsky will build its next rescue helicopter. (Boeing won originally in November 2006 before the protests nullified the decision.) When all is said and done, Air Force officials have said the protest period will have cost the program about two years and roughly $1 billion.
“I think the GAO should have allowed me to do that on the combat search and rescue helicopter,” Wynne said. “I am hoping that they allow them to do that now [with the tanker]. As to whether the contractors will protest, I don’t know.”
The idea of having both contractors build tankers has come up at various times as an option to the winner-take all scenario. But in the past, it was rejected by those inside the Pentagon, including Wynne. Most recently, Young reiterated the anti-split-buy stance for resolving the protest, saying it remains economically undesirable under current budget projections due to the comparatively low rates—about 7.5 aircraft per year—at which each contractor would supply the new tankers, and the correspondingly greater unit costs.
But Wynne, now out of office, said July 28 there is another way to approach the split buy: have each contractor build at the same annual rate that they would have in the winner-take-all scenario—upwards of 15. Keeping two suppliers would strengthen the industrial base, replace the Eisenhower-era KC-135 tankers “at a faster rate” and maintain competition “well into the future,” not a bad consideration since the Air Force needs to buy about 500 new tankers overall to replace its KC-135s, he said.
As for the higher costs of supporting two tankers lines, Wynne said, when asked, he would support applying some of the $5 billion in added procurement funds that the Air Force will reportedly receive in Fiscal 2010 to cover them.
“Yes, it is expensive,” he acknowledged. “[But] it would not be a bad expenditure of an extra billion dollars.”
“I would be willing to do that provided that the Congress supports that,” he continued.
The fact that acquiring two new tankers would create an extra logistics chain isn’t a showstopper, Wynne said. “Right now, we have KC-135Es, KC-135Rs, we have KC-10s. We will have a KC-X and we will hold those four lines for many years. Adding a fifth one, is that a big deal? No. It just isn’t,” he said. Plus each model of new tanker would offer “phenomenally better reliability” than the other models in the fleet.
Wynne’s bottom line is that the Air Force remains “desperate for tankers.” He noted the crash of a B-52H bomber off of the coast of Guam on July 21, killing the six airmen aboard.
The disconcerting fact is that the B-52 fleet, as old as it is, still is younger than the Eisenhower-era KC-135s that the new KC-X tankers are meant to replace.
“As these things age, things do break up,” said Wynne. “When it happens to a tanker, what are we going to do?”
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag