Tactical Turbulence

Rebid on major tanker contract and shake-up of top leadership set back Air Force agenda.

The Air Force is finding itself on an unsteady course as it recovers from a string of public embarrassments surrounding the security of its nuclear arsenal that led to the ousting of its top civilian and military leaders in June.

While it tries to correct deficiencies in the handling of its nuclear weapons, the service is grappling with other problems and is facing uncertainty as it charts its path for the future.

For one, Air Force officials are clinging to the hope that the next administration keeps alive its prized F-22 Raptor fighter jet program for the foreseeable future. The service has made no bones about wanting to buy 381 of the fighter jets-nearly 200 more than currently planned.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has agreed to buy enough of the aircraft this year to keep Lockheed Martin Corp.'s production lines running into 2009, although he has said he is concerned that buying more F-22s could come at the expense of the far less costly Joint Strike Fighter program.

Meanwhile, Gates has made clear that the service would be wise to invest more heavily in the types of drones and other technologies needed to combat threats like those the military is facing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he has criticized the Air Force for not doing enough to support the current fight.

Adding to the Air Force's woes was the Government Accountability Office's surprising decision in June to uphold Boeing Co.'s protest of the Air Force's $35 billion contract award for aerial refueling tankers to Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS N.V., the parent company of Boeing's European rival.

GAO's recommendation to rebid the contract not only delays one of the Air Force's top priorities but also casts another dark shadow on a procurement office still scarred from a scandal-ridden and now-defunct deal to lease the tankers from Boeing.

Just weeks after GAO announced its nonbinding decision, Gates said he would reopen the contract for bidding, adding that he expected to wrap up the competition by the end of the year. He placed the Pentagon's top acquisition official, John Young, in charge of the selection process-effectively taking the contract decision out of the Air Force's hands.

Young told Congress in July that the competition was on an "event-driven schedule" and could face an "infinite number of obstacles" that could push the decision into the next administration. He also warned that the next contract award could spark another protest to GAO, further delaying the program. "If you are an Air Force critic, the world is your oyster," says Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace research firm in Fairfax, Va. "There will be changes-I can't even begin to guess" what those will be.

The tanker fiasco, coupled with other problems the Air Force must deal with, has "fundamentally weakened" the service's ability to push its agenda, Aboulafia adds.

But any wholesale cultural changes within the Air Force will likely not happen overnight-or even with the start of a new administration, says Gordon Adams, who was the Office of Management and Budget's associate director of national security programs during the Clinton administration.

"Change doesn't happen that way in defense," says Adams, who now is a professor of foreign policy at American University. "It doesn't happen with the sudden shearing off of the iceberg. It happens glacially."

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