Air Force pushes Congress to back tanker lease plan

The Air Force is asking Congress to approve a $17.1 billion deal with Boeing to lease 100 tanker planes.

Marvin Sambur, the Air Force's acquisition chief, said at a Pentagon press briefing Monday that the deal would allow the service to get the desperately needed refueling aircraft more quickly than it could by buying them outright. Purchasing the planes would involve an upfront investment of about $5 billion, while the lease arrangement requires minimal initial spending.

"The dominant reason for proposing the lease is the advantage it affords for quickly delivering needed tankers to our warfighters without requiring significant upfront investment," said Sambur. Under the deal, the Air Force would lease 60 aircraft by 2009, and another 40 by 2010. Under a traditional procurement, the service would need an additional five years to reach a fleet of 100 tankers. The Air Force would have the option of spending several billion dollars at the end of the nine-year lease to buy the planes outright.

Sambur said the Air Force's tankers are rapidly aging and if upgrades are not made now, the service eventually could wind up flying tankers that are nearly 80 years old. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Air Force tankers flew more than 6,000 missions and, at times, some fighter planes had to be re-routed or grounded because of a shortage of refueling planes.

Some lawmakers, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have repeatedly criticized the lease deal as little more than a corporate bailout for Boeing, which has seen its commercial business drop off since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Sambur said the Air Force would share all the documents that are legally available with lawmakers to show how the leasing agreement was struck. He said he hopes to have final approval from Congress to sign the lease with Boeing by September.

Sambur said he was not certain that the Air Force would pursue similar lease deals in the future because of how long it had taken to win approval for the tanker deal.