Air Force official suggests Boeing tanker leases only option

The Air Force's second-highest-ranking officer Wednesday appeared to dismiss the need for any further study of the service's aerial refueling requirements, suggesting to House lawmakers that the controversial Boeing KC-767 tanker is the service's only viable option.

"The plan we've got for the 767 is valid," Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley said near the end of his appearance before the House Armed Services Projection Forces Subcommittee. He made this assertion despite recent guidance from senior Defense Department officials that the Air Force study a range of alternatives that could meet its future tanker needs.

The general's remark, made in response to questions from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who attended the hearing, came less than one week after acting Pentagon acquisition chief Michael Wynne told the Air Force to study a variety of tanker options. The so-called analysis of alternatives, which is expected to take 18 months to complete, was mandated by the fiscal 2004 supplemental appropriations bill passed by Congress last fall.

During the hearing, Hunter indicated he had grown weary of the political infighting that has characterized the Boeing tanker proposal in recent months. "We're going to try to help you," Hunter told Moseley during the hearing.

The analysis of alternatives is supposed to examine several options, including refurbishing the Air Force's current fleet of tanker aircraft, purchasing contract fee-for-service refueling from commercial vendors and acquiring alternative commercial derivative tanker aircraft.

It is unclear whether the analysis will have any direct impact on the Air Force's current plan to lease 20 Boeing aircraft and purchase another 80. That plan has been put on hold until a number of federal probes and internal Pentagon reviews of the tanker contract negotiations are completed.

Hunter's vocal support of the plan could breathe new life into the stalled effort, from which other key political players have begun to distance themselves in recent weeks.

But opponents of the Boeing tanker proposal said Moseley's comments wrongfully exclude the need for an analysis of alternatives.

"Gen. Moseley's comments clearly demonstrate that the wedge between the Air Force and the Defense Department is much larger than what we originally thought," said one Senate aide familiar with the tanker debate. "His comments illustrate that he is at odds with Mr. Wynne and his guidance to the Air Force on a new AOA."

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