Air Force Needs New Tankers

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In December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright (search) launched the first powered flight from Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Soon afterward, the U.S. Army successfully tested the Wright Model A (search), which stayed aloft for 58 minutes.

In time, the world would witness the awesome skill of America’s brave pilots (search). Supported by an overwhelming industrial capacity to produce the finest planes and advanced weapons systems available, our pilots have helped to free untold millions of people from tyranny and oppression.

In the 100 years since the first flight near Kitty Hawk, American air power (search) has played a critical role in the defeat of Hitler’s fascism, Stalin’s communism and Taliban terrorism. From the morning Lt. Col. James Doolittle (search) turned his B-25B Mitchell bomber (search) to launch the first U.S. attack on Japan’s mainland, to the amazing 20,000-mile round trips flown by the pilots of B-2 Stealth Bombers (search) on their way to Afghanistan, American air power and ground troops have kept America -- and the world -- free.

But each of the pilots who flew from Missouri to Afghanistan were in the air for 74 hours and refueled 11 times with the help of an air tanker fleet (search) made up, quite literally, of flying antiques.

The average flying tanker in use today is 43 years old, making the tanker fleet the Air Force’s oldest combat weapons system. These planes are as much liabilities as assets. With one-third of the fleet always being repaired, USA Today reported last year that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned a shortage of operational tankers (search) would make it harder to wage the then-looming war against Iraq.

Who could blame them? When the average tanker now flying rolled off the assembly line in 1960, Dwight Eisenhower (search) was president, “Gunsmoke” (search) was the biggest show on TV, and no one outside Liverpool had ever heard of the Beatles.

Unfortunately, due to the deficit and other budget priorities, the Air Force does not have -- and would not be able to obtain through the traditional appropriations process -- the money to purchase the new planes it desperately needs. Congress recognized this challenge in late 2001 by authorizing the Air Force to explore the viability of leasing 100 new 767 tankers (search), a practice commonly used in the commercial airline industry to get new planes in service quickly.

This innovative approach gained support from President Bush, the Pentagon and large majorities on Capitol Hill. And with good reason: Our pilots get out of the oldest tankers much sooner than anticipated, with 67 of the new tankers delivered in the next six years -- five years sooner than with an outright purchase. Further, by leasing, the Air Force will save over $5 billion in the maintenance and depot costs associated with the old planes.

Now, a few special-interest critics are making a desperate bid to derail the program. Led by Ralph Nader (search) and Common Cause (search), the group seems to have it in for the Bush White House, the Pentagon or both. Nader and his oddball bunch are making noise, trying to argue that leasing these aircraft is the costly alternative designed as a “corporate giveaway” to Boeing (search), the company that won the contract to build the planes.

Luckily, they aren’t making much headway in convincing Americans that leasing a fleet of aircraft is against our national interest. The fact that there are costs associated with this lease that would not be associated with an outright purchase is not news. The situation is similar to that faced by millions of American families who purchase homes through mortgages because they do not have the money to buy a home outright. It is similar to that faced by the airlines that lease new planes to keep us flying in the latest and safest aircraft. Certainly all parties would prefer to have the cash to buy what they need free and clear, but the reality of our financial situations forces us to look to tested alternatives to finance items we critically need.

The real news is that the extra costs the Air Force incurs with this lease have been carefully negotiated, giving the Air Force a better deal than the average consumer could expect on a mortgage or airline could obtain on a commercial jet. Boeing makes absolutely no profit from the lease transaction -- a fact that puts the claims of the Nader bunch into serious doubt.

While tankers are neither sleek nor sexy, they are essential in fighting and winning the kind of long-distance, air-power-led war America is now waging. The brave men and women of the new century’s most advanced military deserve the support of tanker aircraft that weren’t built in the middle of the last one.

Maj. Gen. James Livingston, USMC (Ret), a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, is an honorary co-chairman of the National Defense Trust.