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Aerial Tanker Goes to Top of List

The Air Force makes the acquisition of refuelers, possibly from Boeing, its No. 1 priority.

October 13, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After more than a decade of focusing on its prized F-22 fighter program, the Air Force announced Thursday that it was changing its top acquisition priority to a fleet of 450 aerial refueling tankers, a star-crossed program that landed one Pentagon procurement official in jail last year.

The shift in priorities marks the return of a program that once drew the ire of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is expected to become the new chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee if Republicans retain control of the Senate in November.

McCain contended that the program was an unnecessary sop to Boeing Co., which initially was chosen shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to build a fleet of 100 refuelers using converted 767 jetliners.

An investigation led by McCain resulted in the resignation of Boeing Chief Executive Philip Condit after it was revealed that the company's chief financial officer, Michael Sears, was working to hire Air Force official Darlene Druyun while she was still overseeing the service's procurement program.

Druyun and Sears served prison terms, and James Roche, then secretary of the Air Force, retired in the scandal's wake.

The Boeing contract was canceled but will be put up for bid again.

The revitalized tanker program could be a boon for Southern California's beleaguered aerospace industry. Although Pentagon budget projections put the cost of the program at $13 billion from 2008 to 2013, replacing all of the Air Force's current fleet of tankers, many of which are already more than 40 years old, could run as much as $100 billion.

"It may end up being the biggest weapons program of this generation," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the nonpartisan Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp. is preparing a bid that would offer the Air Force an aerial refueler based on Airbus' A330 aircraft, recently selected by Britain and Australia for their tankers.

Chicago-based Boeing will probably bid its 767 again. Although the aircraft would be built in Washington state, converting it into a tanker probably would occur elsewhere, possibly at Boeing's Long Beach facility, where the company assembles the C-17 military transport plane -- a program at risk of being canceled.

Traditionally, however, Boeing handles such aircraft conversions at its plant in Wichita, Kan.

European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co., Airbus' Franco-German parent, has already committed to converting its A330s in Mobile, Ala.

Air Force officials acknowledged that the program had a troubled history, but they emphasized that they had made it their No. 1 priority because even if it took delivery of 10 to 15 new tankers a year, it would still take decades to replace the aging fleet. That means some of the last to be replaced would be in service for 70 years.

"The airman who is going to be the last pilot of the KC-135 fleet has not yet been born," said Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, using the military's designation for the oldest model of current tankers.

The Air Force is expected to send out a formal request for bids by mid-December and award a contract by September. One person close to the program, however, said an award could come as early as July.

Air Force officials said the program also was essential because of the long distances being flown by transport, bomber and fighter aircraft in the global war on terrorism, which has taxed the current fleet of KC-135 and newer KC-10 tankers.

Even so, the shift from the F-22 -- now in production -- to the tanker program is an important change culturally for the Air Force because it has frequently been criticized for putting its high-end fighters above all else.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, said its next new fighter, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, was now only its No. 4 priority.

"You guys have watched us over time and even written every once in a while that this is a fighter-pilot-dominated Air Force and all we care about is white scarves and fighters," Moseley told reporters Thursday. "I am a fighter pilot, been one all my life. Isn't it interesting that this chief's No. 1 priority is the tanker?"

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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