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Tilting at Windmills

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July 10, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

GATES vs. THE AIR FORCE....The competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman to build a new fleet of aerial tankers for the Air Force has been opened up yet again. That's no surprise after the GAO's June report criticizing the procurement process, but this part is sort of interesting:

At a Pentagon news conference, [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said the competition would not start all over again, but instead Boeing and Northrop would be asked for amended proposals to deal with the GAO's criticisms. Gates said his office, and not the Air Force, would evaluate the new submissions.

....Gates' decision to strip the Air Force of oversight of the new competition is the latest in a series of high-profile setbacks for the service.

Gates has a real war going with the Air Force, and this is the latest skirmish. There's probably not enough time left in the Bush administration for him to do any real damage to the flyboys, but I wonder how hard he'll try to get his successor to continue the fight? He really seems to have decided that the Air Force is seriously out of control and needs a big-time slapping down.

Kevin Drum 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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God is looking after the Air Force. Visit Colorado Springs and you'll see. He will smite Gates mightily. Even now prayer vigils are held in the dorms beseeching God to slay the evil one and to visit pestilence and poverty on seven times seven future generations of his family. It will be done.

Posted by: steve duncan on July 10, 2008 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

God is looking after the Air Force.

Stop trying to out wierd Al, okay?

Posted by: e. nonee moose on July 10, 2008 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: mhr on July 10, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

Gates is right. The Air Force needs smacking down. The bigs in Colorado Springs have been trying to turn them into a religious force with god-like air power. Sickening.

Posted by: cmac on July 10, 2008 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

I'm no big fan of Boeing, but they obviously provided the better option, so something has been hinky about this process from the beginning. There is no way that it is cost effective to build assembly facilities etc. for a foreign designed and fabricated plane (even if it is in the perpetually good jobs poor but low rent South) than to adapt a domestically designed jet with existing manufacturing/assembly facilities and an established supply chain.

Given that this all happened under the Bush administration, we probably won't find out until after January whose pockets got lined on this one.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 10, 2008 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

Gates is probably Episcopalian or Presbyterian, which puts him at odds with rattlesnake proofing Pentecosts.

Posted by: Brojo on July 10, 2008 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

A headline that leftists everywhere will welcome : Obama vs. The US Military.

This is the sort of knee-jerk bullshit that is truly puerile. My dad was a civilian employee of the US Army. On two separate occasions I lived in Kaiserslautern, Germany when he was stationed there. K-Town is near Ramstein Air Force Base and I was there when USAFE headquarters moved there from Wiesbaden. The infrastructure at Ramstein was always better than at any of the Army units in the area: Panzer Kaserne, Kleber Kaserne, Kaiserslautern Army Depot (KAD), the Medical Material Center in Einsiedlerhof.

Indeed, the only one equal in terms to any of the Air Force facilities was Landstuhl Hospital, run by the Army, but serving both Army and Air Force.

The USAF has always been the rich kid of the services. One wonders these days whetehr a separate branch for the Air Force is actually needed.

Posted by: Randy Paul on July 10, 2008 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

Gates can't beat them, it IS the Air Force after all ... oops I meant OVER ALL!

Posted by: dontcallmefrancis on July 10, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

There is talk that Obama might keep Gates on as Secretary of Defense.

By the way the fight is between Boeing and Air Bus. Northrup is just the Air Bus straw.

Posted by: Ron Byers on July 10, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

One really big problem is that the budget tradition is one-third to the Army, one-third to the Navy, and one-third to the Air Force.

But the Air Force was created to perform strategic bombing and gain control of the airspace above the battle. Missiles have now replaced most strategic bombing missions, and the Navy and Marines do at least as well providing control of the air space. Army anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles replace a lot of what the Air Force used to do. Helicopters provide much of the close air support and more of the air-over-ground logistics support the the ground troops, a job the Air Force has always done grudgingly at best. Now the predator threatens to replace pilots for both surveillance and ground support.

About all that's left for the Air Force to do is long range air lift (essentially a form of trucking through the air) and space war (not yet very important.) Frankly the Air Force should be folded back into the Army and a lot of money wasted in duplicated logistics channels would be saved.

If the Pentagon developed a joint logistics branch (staffed with Navy and Army personnel) to support all military and gave it the Air Force's long distance air transport function while giving the tactical support of Army ground forces back to the Army (as the Marines have always done) no one would ever miss the Air Force.

It would give military aviation back to the military and naval forces. And the Air force knows this. They really have run out of significant reasons to continue to exist as a separate force. And the overall Pentagon budget could be lowered at no real loss of effectiveness. The Air Force is clearly not worth one-third of the overall budget.

Their lack of function has left them no hope beyond prayer and silliness.

Posted by: Rick B on July 10, 2008 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

Do we even need a new fleet of air tankers?

Sounds like another money-sucking boondoggle to me, either way.


Posted by: gypsy howell on July 10, 2008 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

"Do we need a new fleet of air tankers?"

Why, yes. Yes we do. The current fleet of tankers were built back in the 1950s and 1960s on the old Boeing 707 airframe.

Posted by: Ron Byers on July 10, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

Obama may keep Gates on. But if you want to do a bit of punditry here, read the recently released GAO report on evaluation process and why they overturned it. It's not clear to me that you can do as Gates has suggested, just redo the parts in question, and live up to the spirit of the GAO's criticisms.

Their criticisms were that the EADS proposal was non-responsive in the technical merits in several areas and should legally never have been accepted, that EADS never demonstrated they could refuel the Air Force fleet (apparently this is a V-22 issue), and that in many of the areas of the contract that they did not overturn, that not overturning it doesn't mean they think the Air Force got it right, merely that it goes to questions of judgment that they were not asked to make. That is, given a choice of A or B, the Air Force chose B, the GAO thinks that could be a dubious choice, but it wasn't in their scope to examine that choice, so it goes through.

I think the rebid is a good thing for everyone, I am not sure that it can be done in a meaningful way the way Gates want to.

What I am more curious about is your feelings regarding Gates in general. He was mightily opposed on the left before he was confirmed. Has that criticism borne out? How has he done? Was the left correct to oppose him so aggressively or did we make a mistake?

Posted by: jerry on July 10, 2008 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

We do not need the tankers because there is no need to refuel military aircraft while they are in flight. There is no conflict that requires this fuel delivery system at this time, so there is no reason to spend the money on this bit of corporate welfare.

Posted by: Brojo on July 10, 2008 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

Brojo is absolutely correct. And has anyone bothered to even ask why planes have both LEFT and RIGHT wings? It's the payout to both parties from the military industrial complex.

Posted by: jerry on July 10, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

We do not need the tankers because there is no need to refuel military aircraft while they are in flight. There is no conflict that requires this fuel delivery system at this time, so there is no reason to spend the money on this bit of corporate welfare.
Posted by: Brojo

While this may be true, are we just supposed to wait until the current fleet of planes falls out of the sky?

Look, if you want a target deserving of ridicule and accusations of wastefulness, the continued maintenance of the B-52, which we haven't had any real use for since the 1980s, would be a better expenditure of your spleen. But failing to replace the re-fueling jets is short-sighted.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 10, 2008 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

The AF has needed serious slapping down for a long time now. I've visited the Academy and those people have some seriously loose screws.

Probably it's because they're pilots, which means really aggressive by temperament, and because what they do (theoretically) is drop stuff on people and then fly home. They're perfectly willing to commit us to wars we'll fight down to the last GI and Marine.

Not so incidentally, the temperament/judgment thing about pilots applies to McCain.

Posted by: Altoid on July 10, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

This not quite a rebid and maybe Gates is being sent in to make sure they do it right and don't get flack for choosing Airvus.
Key section:
Although The Boeing Co. will get another shot at winning the competition to supply the Air Force with air-refueling tankers, Wednesday's announcement by the Defense Department fell far short of an all-new bid process.

And Boeing backers quickly called "foul" after the Pentagon's new point man in the tanker competition told some members of Congress that extra credit would be given for a bigger tanker -- a move that would favor the Airbus-based tanker that won the first contest.

Link

Posted by: Tom_23 on July 10, 2008 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

JeffII wrote: “Look, if you want a target deserving of ridicule and accusations of wastefulness, the continued maintenance of the B-52, which we haven't had any real use for since the 1980s, would be a better expenditure of your spleen.”

Actually, when it comes to cruising around over a third world battle field and rolling smart bombs out on command from the grunts below, the B-52 is far cheaper than the B-1B, B-2, or the tactical jets. This exemplifies the problem with the air force – it is mostly geared to fighting the old Soviet Empire, not the lower intensity type of wars we are actually involved in.

Gates was mad about the use of drones in Iraq. He wanted the drones to be able to respond to the situation on the ground, so that officers as low as Captain who were in a tight spot could request a drone and get real time intelligence. The Air Force response was that because the drones were in short supply, their use would be controlled by an Air Force general.

The need for air to air refueling is increasing, as more and more countries deny us landing rights.

Posted by: fafner1 on July 10, 2008 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

I'm glad someone is scrutinizing military procurement and the revolving door. Could save hundreds of billions of dollars going for corruption.

Posted by: Luther on July 10, 2008 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Jeff II, I can't help but think you haven't followed the service history of the B-52. If you had, you'd realize that not only is it by far the cheapest heavy bomber to operate, but it has the largest payload.

There are many advantages to using the B-52 as a weapons platform well into this century (and it is planned to keep flying until 2040, making the H model a 90-year-old airframe at retirement), but the Air Force itself has kept needed upgrades on the back burner to fund blue-sky programs. The RB-211 engine lease proposal (far lower fuel burn, higher thrust, far higher reliability) was shelved in the 90s. A proposal to re-engine the B-52 with CFM-56 engines (the engines on your friendly local 737) also failed the Air Force's "shiny new toy" test.

Once you get past thepolitics, the B-52 actually makes more sense than the B-1 or B-2 for the kinds of wars we actually fight these days - not that I wouldn't be happier seeing them practicing bomb runs instead of making them.

Posted by: F'in Librul on July 10, 2008 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's Francophobia. The thought that the US Air Force might depend on tankers containing French components was, frankly, too Gauling for the Pentagon -- Carla Bruni notwithstanding.

(Carla can integrate her components on my tanker any day.)

Posted by: pj in jesusland on July 10, 2008 at 6:17 PM | PERMALINK

Jeff II, I can't help but think you haven't followed the service history of the B-52. If you had, you'd realize that not only is it by far the cheapest heavy bomber to operate, but it has the largest payload.

Followed it real closely. In fact, just drove by Fairchild Air Force Base two weeks ago.

Once you get past thepolitics, the B-52 actually makes more sense than the B-1 or B-2 for the kinds of wars we actually fight these days - not that I wouldn't be happier seeing them practicing bomb runs instead of making them. Posted by: F'in Librul

With cruise missiles, the Trident submarine, ICBMs, etc., etc. we don't need heavy bombers. It's a relic of the Cold War and makes no sense with the kind of wars we fight today.

Interesting aside, it seems that the military's vaunted survival school at Fairchild is run by a private contractor. Probably a fucking sub-contractor of Blackwater.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 10, 2008 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK
With cruise missiles, the Trident submarine, ICBMs, etc., etc. we don't need heavy bombers.

Heavy bombers are, among other things, cruise missile platforms, and they can get to a launch position a lot quicker than most other platforms.


ICBMs have no role except strategic deterrence against major nuclear attack (an important role, but while it overlaps with that of heavy bombers, it doesn't replace all of their roles), and SSBNs have similar problems (though they can do some other tasks, many of which are better served by SSNs). ICBMs and SLBMs (and the SSBNs that carry them) are more "relics of the Cold War" with limited relevance to the kind of wars we fight today than are heavy bombers which, unlike ICBMs and SLBMs, are actually used in the kinds of wars we fight today.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 10, 2008 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

Heavy bombers are, among other things, cruise missile platforms, and they can get to a launch position a lot quicker than most other platforms.Posted by: cmdicely

Yes. And they can get shot down just a quickly.

The B-52 made up one leg of the Cold War era nuclear defense tripod. Those days are over. In an era of targetable weapons, we don't carpet bomb cities any longer, the thing all heavy bombers were designed for in the first place.

And regardless of what it's fans say, the lumbering hulk does not fly "close air support," a task handled by much faster, harder to hit and more nimble B-1 and B-2 bombers and our mostly unmatched fighter aircraft, with the best for this task still being the relatively slow A-10 Warthog.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 10, 2008 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

I always thought the A-10 looked more like a Puma.

Posted by: Grif on July 10, 2008 at 9:30 PM | PERMALINK

It might be apostasy to say (because we are speaking of the Bush Administration where competence and intelligence is a scarcity at best), but I think that Gates has been an impressive SecDef and standing up to the Air Force is just one more piece of evidence in his favor.

I'd be pleased if Gates would stay on in an Obama Admin.

Posted by: Stacy on July 10, 2008 at 9:33 PM | PERMALINK

Yes. And they can get shot down just a quickly.

The B-52 made up one leg of the Cold War era nuclear defense tripod. Those days are over. In an era of targetable weapons, we don't carpet bomb cities any longer, the thing all heavy bombers were designed for in the first place.

And regardless of what it's fans say, the lumbering hulk does not fly "close air support," a task handled by much faster, harder to hit and more nimble B-1 and B-2 bombers and our mostly unmatched fighter aircraft, with the best for this task still being the relatively slow A-10 Warthog.

Actually it does precisely that. In Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Iraq B-52s loiter over the battlefield at 50,000ft (far above the range of any man portable air defense system) dispensing smart bombs on request from ground forces, and their relatively efficient engines mean that one can do so for hours on end without any tanker support, something that B-1s or faster fighters (even the A-10) can't do. That's actually why we need new tankers as well, without them we can't keep any fighters over troops providing air support, nor could we deploy them anywhere outside the continental US in the first place.

Gates is probably right to try and take on the Air Force, but he couldn't be doing it at a worse time. Aircraft are literally falling out of the sky from old age and gates is putting a stop to their replacements.

Posted by: Nied on July 10, 2008 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

I'll just join the crowd in beating up on JeffII. The hot ticket today is JDAM, dumb bombs retrofited with smart electronics that can home in on GPS coordinates or to a laser designated target - cheap and effective. Why bother bringing a tactical jet down to within range of ground fire, when the guys up at 50,000 feet in a B-52 can just roll them out on request from the grunts below. This may all change if we face an enemy that can challange our air supremecy, but for now the B-52 is the ground attack weapon of choice.

Posted by: fafner1 on July 11, 2008 at 1:18 AM | PERMALINK

The Air Force needs to be taken down at least two pegs. Their gaming of the UAV issue has cost & will continue to cost the lives of grunts which is completely inexcusable.

Good move on Gates part. I hope there is more to come.

"Against stupidity, the very gods themselves must contend in vain." - Friedrich von Shille

Posted by: daCascadian on July 11, 2008 at 2:24 AM | PERMALINK

JeffII

You've been seduced by manufacturer propaganda.

The B52 is the wholesale equivalent of what the A10 is retail. Loiter above the battlefield, and get called in as very close air support (using JDAMS).

The US doesn't have any opponents who can challenge its air superiority. So loiter time over target is what counts. As well as ability to launch from bases far, far away (Guam and Diego Garcia).

(Iranian Air Defence won't last 72 hours in a war, neither would Syrian. The US doesn't have any realistic enemies who could contest its control of airspace).

By contrast B1 and B2 are expensive to maintain and operate, and will have much lower airframe lives due to their aerodynamics (swing wings, stealth features etc.).

Note with ICBMs a conventional ICBM is impossible, for precisely the reason Congress identified. The Russians and the Chinese wouldn't be able to distinguish them from a sneak attack on their countries (imagine a launch by a Trident from the Indian Ocean towards Natanz or Waziristan). So launching an ICBM could trigger nuclear war with Russia or China.

Posted by: Valuethinker on July 11, 2008 at 7:36 AM | PERMALINK


If we fold the air force into the army, then we'll need to rebuild DoD headquarters as a square. And if we fold the marines into the navy, we can rebuild it as a triangle. And if we privatize the coast guard, we can make it a line, which will save on materials.

Posted by: Edwin Abbott on July 11, 2008 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

Not to kick a dead horse but I think it's nationalism that's the issue here -- Airbus vs. Boeing. American jobs vs. French jobs.

We saw a similar reaction by the US government to Dubai Ports' acquisition of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company back in spring, 2006. The US government is not ready to give up control over sensitive logistical and military facilities/equipment to foreign-owned firms, oil companies notwithstanding.

Oil companies have a long history of working hand-in-glove with the US government dating back to the CIA- and British-backed overthrow of Mossaddegh in Iran back in 1953.

Hey, come to think if it, do you think any of Iran's current suspicion of US motives in the Middle East has to do with the fact that we overthrew their government once before, just 55 years ago? There are probably quite a few Iranians still around who remember that time.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on July 11, 2008 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

The US doesn't have any realistic enemies who could contest its control of airspace.

So we do not need to spend hundreds, nor thousands, of billions of dollars on new aircraft and weapons systems. There are no realistic enemies to fight at this time, so the expenditures are a waste of public resources to enrich unworthy war contractors.

Posted by: Brojo on July 11, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Has anybody here actually read the decision? And that's what it is, by the way, not a report or audit, but a decision by a GAO hearing officer sustaining a bid protest brought by Boeing. It's here.

The short version is that the AF really screwed this thing up. It's not about french jobs, or the SecDef, or anything else. The underlying issue here is not between Gates and the AF, but between the AF and Boeing.

The AF never forgave Boeing for dragging it through the Darleen Druyun mess, and the five years of incredibly disruptive IG investigations that followed. The AF procurement community HATES Boeing, and doesn't care that they are an American company. There was no way that the AF was giving this contract, the re-do of the very contract that sparked the Druyun-Boeing mess, to Boeing. EADS knew that all it had to do was find a US beard, and it would win. Which it did. And if you read the GAO decision, it's pretty obvious that the AF had its thumb on the scales.

Oh, and unless you are going to scrap all of current US air power doctrine, lots of which is really, really effective, you need tankers, and our current fleet is fifty years old. What you seem to be missing, Brojo, is that the reason we have uncontested control of airspace is because of the superiority of our machines. This is not an argument for getting rid of these machines and not buying new ones. There may be good arguments for that position, but that's not one of them.

We need them badly. We needed them badly five years ago when Boeing paid off the AF's procurement chief to get the contract.

Posted by: st on July 11, 2008 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, and unless you are going to scrap all of current US air power doctrine, lots of which is really, really effective, you need tankers, and our current fleet is fifty years old. What you seem to be missing, Brojo, is that the reason we have uncontested control of airspace is because of the superiority of our machines. This is not an argument for getting rid of these machines and not buying new ones. There may be good arguments for that position, but that's not one of them.

Indeed, one of the good arguments is something I hinted at in my last post. Our F-15s, one of the lynch pins of our uncontested air superiority, are literally falling out of the sky from old age (metal fatigue). We currently have roughly 500 F-15s flying while Gates as part of his anti-Air Force jihad has been very firm in trying to keep the production of their replacement (the F-22) at 180 planes. And before anyone says it, no we can not just replace them with more F-15s, or at least not for much cheaper as the average new build F-15 has a going price of $100 million vs $120 million for a Raptor.

Posted by: Nied on July 11, 2008 at 11:15 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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