American-made refueling tankers part of strategy to project strength

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Now more than ever, thanks to the projection of weakness in Afghanistan, the United States needs to project strength and produce top-notch defense aircraft.

The platforms that win wars aren’t always the platforms that the military or Congress thinks very much about before the shooting starts. Before World War II, for example, the Navy loved battleships and assumed they would be critical in any conflict. As it turned out, aircraft carriers and landing craft proved to be the most important weapons.

Today, people generally think of fighters when they think about airpower. They make movies about fighter pilots; tanker aircraft are generally unheralded. But the military couldn’t project force without them. Refueling tankers allow American power to reach all corners of the globe without requiring expensive (and difficult to protect) military bases everywhere.

The United States has always had the best tankers. The United States must always have the best tankers. It’s the only way to stay ahead of potential enemies. That makes this moment important.

The Air Force is looking ahead – far ahead. To dominate the skies after 2030, it will have a new generation tanker. To get there, though, it is going to need a bridge. Its current tankers are becoming too old to use, and the Air Force needs a new fleet for the short term.

Luckily, it already has the answer in its fleet. The Air Force plans to buy about 150 more tankers, and it will already have about 180 KC-46 Pegasus tankers in service. So that’s an easy decision, right? Just buy more of what you are already using. As Southwest Airways has understood for decades, having one make and model in your fleet helps with maintenance and repair. Southwest only flies 737s, so it only has to train mechanics on one type of jet, and it doesn’t have to stock parts for dozens of jets (the way other airlines, which buy planes from multiple makers, do).

The only problem might be if there is, indeed, a problem with the KC-46.

That isn’t an issue; the plane is working well and doing what it is supposed to do. To be fair, there has been a slight glitch: when the sun is on the horizon, it can be difficult for the plane’s crew to connect the tanker to other aircraft. As military analyst Loren Thompson explains, “the Air Force has recently approved the design of an upgraded vision system that is expected to resolve problems with glare occurring during the 7% of a typical flight day when the sun is low in the sky.”

With this problem solved, we can get on with updating the tanker fleet, right? Well, in Washington, nothing is ever that easy. There is one other design that could fill the tanker gap. The French company Airbus peddles a tanker based on its A330 frame. A plan for Airbus to enter an agreement with Lockheed Martin to work on these planes in Alabama is earning support from Alabama’s congressional delegation.

However, I believe – and hope that most people would agree – that important national security decisions should not be made based on political pork. They should be made based on national needs. It simply wouldn’t make sense to start working a different type of tanker into the fleet. Even if the plane performed flawlessly, crews would need to be retrained, parts would need to be stocked, and mechanics would need to learn the nuances of a new aircraft. (Remember earlier when we talked about Southwest Airways?) 

Also, Lockheed doesn’t have a great record of delivering working aircraft. It has spent decades working on the F-35, a combat jet that has never fully delivered during the 20 years America has been at war since September 11. The F-35 is overbudget, underperforms, and based on the fixes that have been offered so far, may never work as intended. 

With the KC-46, Boeing has a dedicated assembly line up and running. Airbus would build its tanker in Europe and then ship it to Alabama to be modified. That might expose military secrets, and it would undoubtedly make it more difficult to make adjustments as the planes were being built. 

The KC-46 is ready to roll off the assembly lines, and we already know it works. There is no sense in trying to open a bidding process for another tanker at this point. Let’s get the bridge in place as quickly as possible and then look at the next-generation aircraft. With out-of-control governmental spending going on at a record pace and the misguided foreign policies of the current administration, this is no time to play politics with national security.

Tim Tapp is the host of the syndicated, conservative talk show “Tapp” into the Truth. He calls East Tennessee home, where he broadcasts and writes. He also still works in Quality Assurance for a food manufacturing company as he takes up the cause of defending our republic. Find out more at www.tappintothetruth.com

Tim Tapp

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