The battle over whether, how, and when to raise the national debt ceiling rages on Capitol Hill and at the White House. While political leaders tussle over the “Big Picture” balance between debt and spending, we must ensure that none of the key elements of our defense budget suffer collateral damage in the confusion.
Considering today’s threatening global environment in which we are sending billions of dollars in military munitions to Ukraine in a proxy war with Russia, and as we face an increasing bellicose China in regions from the Taiwan Strait to west Africa, it is more important than ever that no key components of our defense strategy be overlooked or short-changed.
The ongoing and complex budget/debt battle creates the “perfect storm” in which defense doves and special interest groups might be able to chip away at certain defense programs. They must not be allowed to succeed, especially when it comes to such often overlooked factors as military logistics and supply lines.
While last week’s proposal by Speaker McCarthy to link debt ceiling relief to cuts in several of Biden’s favored spending programs will never be supported in toto by Democrats, budget cuts or caps for some programs may yet emerge as a price those on the other side of the aisle may be willing to accept in return for the overarching goal of increasing the debt ceiling. This is where the details matter.
Mid-air refueling capability for our fleet of aircraft rarely makes the evening news. Without it, however, combat readiness and effective warfighting capability come to a standstill, especially in the vast Pacific theater across which the United States and China face each other.
A battle already is brewing within the Air Force, and between competing major defense contractors, including Boeing and the European Union’s Airbus. Here is where Republican negotiators must be especially sensitive to and focused on ensuring that there is no gap in the development of a needed, next generation refueling aircraft.
This tanker dispute is not something new. A dozen years ago, Boeing’s KC-46 “Pegasus” refueling tanker/transport won a contract to produce some 56 of the planes, to replace the venerable but aging KC-135 “Stratotankers” also built by Boeing. In an exceptionally rare finding, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined in 2019 that the KC-46 program, while not perfect, was proceeding under cost.
Notwithstanding this benefit to American taxpayers, Boeing’s proposal to build the follow-on, next generation refueler, known as the “KC-Z,” has been met with pushback by European-based Airbus and some of its cheerleaders in the U.S. Congress and our own defense industry.
The “LMXT” tanker is designed by Airbus, in which France is a major partner and is an aircraft manufacturer with a significant commercial relationship with China.
Aside from these important political factors against outsourcing development and production of our next generation refueling tanker aircraft, there are other significant, practical reasons to stay with domestic producer Boeing.
For one thing, while the proposed LMXT is larger than Boeing’s proposed KC-Z, that size comes with significant drawbacks, including the inability to land on many shorter military runways that often are found in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Also of concern is the LMXT’s higher fuel consumption than the Boeing transport, and the fact that its larger footprint means fewer planes of any sort can be maintained on many airfields across the globe.
As a stopgap measure, some in the military acquisition sector are recommending that a temporary “bridge” tanker be built while the long-term decision is made to go with either the American-produced KC-Z or the European Union-based LMXT. Such a move would be costly and time-consuming, just when time truly is of the essence to make sure the United States is fully able to meet current and expected threats from China in far-flung regions across vast distances.
As Air Force Military Command chief General Mike Minihan has stated, the KC-46A currently meets all military needs and Air Force requirements for all aircraft in our nation’s inventory and in all theaters of operation. Building on it to build the next generation of tanker/transports rather than shifting to an entirely new and unproven, European-based tanker platform, is unnecessary and costly.
In a conflict with a major adversary, especially China, such delays and operational shortcomings could prove detrimental, if not disastrous.