Study sees no need to replace Air Force tankers

A new analysis of the Air Force's tanker modernization plans has found that the military can safely delay expensive plans to replace its fleet of aerial-refueling planes, contradicting longstanding Air Force claims that the aircraft were aging and in disrepair, according to sources familiar with the study.

Pentagon officials briefed congressional staffers behind closed doors Thursday, revealing that the findings of the 1,500-page study essentially validated the Senate Armed Services Committee's staunch opposition to a now-defunct deal to lease new tankers from Boeing Co.

With no compelling reason to replace the Air Force's Boeing KC-135 tankers in the near future, the study concluded that the Air Force should weigh budget constraints and other considerations before purchasing new aircraft, said a government source.

"Corrosion is a known problem [but] proactive steps can be taken to mitigate it," a congressional staffer said. "The wings are not falling off."

In the rush to acquire new planes in 2003, the Air Force tried to lease Boeing KC-767s before any other options were formally reviewed. But congressional critics, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ultimately forced the Pentagon to consider alternatives to the Boeing aircraft and to open any future tanker contract to competition.

The RAND Corp. conducted the analysis of alternatives, with input from Pentagon acquisition officials, as well as analysts at the independent Institute for Defense Analyses. The study, which is classified as secret, has not been publicly released.

The Defense Department had planned to brief Congress on the results of the study last February. But those briefings were postponed to allow RAND to more thoroughly review the Air Force's tanker requirements and options.

The study focused mainly on the question of buying new commercial airplanes to replace the KC-135s, steering clear of other options like leasing aerial refueling services and buying used or surplus aircraft.

But the analysis did not champion any particular aircraft, instead evaluating several available commercial options that would meet the Air Force's tanker requirements.

"From what I can read in this, there is still plenty of room for competition," the congressional staffer said. There are a "couple of options that look good," the aide said.

That likely spells good news for European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., which plans to offer its new KC-330 in any future competition for the potentially lucrative tanker aircraft. Boeing's 767 tanker also is considered a leading contender.

In fact, delaying competition for the tanker contract might ultimately be beneficial for EADS, which is expanding its U.S. presence and breaking ground next week on an engineering center in Mobile, Ala.

"The 767 line will not last forever," the staffer said. "Time is more on [EADS's] side because the airplane they're promoting is not a sunset airplane, but a sunrise airplane."

The RAND study is the latest in almost four years of government investigations into the $23.5 billion deal with Boeing, which collapsed amid the biggest Pentagon procurement scandal in more than two decades.

Those reviews prompted the resignation of Air Force Secretary James Roche and the indictment and conviction of two top Boeing executives, ex-Air Force acquisition official Darleen Druyun and Michael Sears, the company's chief financial officer.

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