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

As the events in Afghanistan in recent months remind us, it has been far too long since the United States has clearly and decisively won a war. There are many reasons for that. But there is one area that is clearly not to blame: The Air Force’s refueling tanker program.

Right now, Congress is looking at National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) annual legislation for this year with controversy swirling over women in the draft, safe banking for cannabis businesses, and the transfer of military equipment to local police. What should not be controversial is fully funding the American-made refueling tanker program and to block the plan of some in Congress to outsource the manufacture of these aircraft to a French company.

For decades, American bomber and fighter jets have been able to refuel in flight. This makes it easier for them to get aloft quickly and allows them to reach targets anywhere on the planet. Tanker jets may not be as glamorous as fighters, but they keep those fighters fueled and over the target for hours.

Now, though, as the military is struggling in so many ways in so many places, there is also a potential fight that could harm the future of the tanker fleet. A military decision that should be easy may be complicated by political intervention.

The story begins overseas. A French aerospace company, Airbus, has engaged in a partnership with an American company to try to win a contract to manufacture refueling tankers for military aircraft. It should go without saying that U.S. tax dollars should not be outsourced to a French company, especially when a superior domestic alternative is available.

That is where the KC-46 tanker comes in. 

Boeing’s KC-46 is already in service, and it is approved to fuel almost all types of combat aircraft. That approval process took a long time and cost a lot of money. It even uncovered some problems: the KC-46 had some weaknesses which have been identified and fixed. That’s what testing is for. Now the plane is up to spec and ready to provide years of crucial service. 

The European tanker, on the other hand, would be starting from scratch. It would need to be approved by the Air Force and by the FAA. Testing and approval, even if everything goes perfectly, would cost more than a billion dollars and could take years. That is a waste of both time and money, neither of which the Air Force has to spare.

There are other unnecessary complications. The Airbus version would be designed and begun overseas, shipped to the U.S. and assembled in Alabama. That means there would be many assembly lines involved in the process, instead of the dedicated Boeing assembly line that is currently building the KC-46 in America.

The French version would be larger than the KC-46. But this would cause problems. Larger planes need more space on the ground. They are more difficult to land on short runways. They can’t make tight turns in the air. “In places like the Pacific, usable airbases are often severely constrained in terms of space, so a bigger plane means less tankers on the ramp, or (even worse) less room for fighters and bombers,” notes military analyst Loren Thompson. It would also burn more fuel, which reduces its effectiveness as an aircraft that delivers fuel to other planes.

Some politicians will argue that the Air Force would benefit from having more than one type of tanker. But that isn’t true, either.

Southwest Airways built an entire business model around flying only the 737. That way its pilots only needed to be trained on one system. Its mechanics only needed to know how to work on one system. It only needed to stock parts for one system. Especially in this time when supply chains are strained, why would we want the Air Force to be ordering two types of every aircraft part? The KC-46, already in service, should be all we need.

In the decades ahead, the Air Force plans to design and develop a completely new type of tanker. What it needs for the next decade is a workable design, a “bridge tanker” that keeps all our aircraft fueled and in the sky. It has that, in service today, in the form of the KC-46. Lawmakers should be throwing their support behind buying more of those American-made Boeing jets. Do that, and we just might start winning wars again.

Taxpayers should keep a close eye on Congress to make sure the NDAA is not used to outsource American money to purchase a European second-rate alternative to American-made refueling tankers.

Dan Perkins
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