Next on the List—Tankers

The next big tussle facing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who must feel upbeat after Senators acceded to the Administration’s desires to end F-22 fighter production at 187 aircraft and to stop funding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine, is the political imbroglio over whether to build one or two tankers. Gates has maintained that the Pentagon should select a single winner in the next iteration of the KC-X tanker competition, but many lawmakers and defense analysts believe that would doom the program, yet again. The only thing everyone agrees on is that USAF must begin replacing its elderly KC-135s. Although an early proponent of a two-tanker approach, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations defense panel, decided he would leave the option open for a one-winner-take-all gambit, adding language to the just-passed 2010 spending bill that would let Gates make the call, but it also “encourages the department to produce more than one aircraft per month”—which it would need to do to support two tankers. So far, we don’t even know whether USAF or OSD will take the lead in running the new competition. In mid-June, Gates said he was “within a few days” of deciding just how the competition would progress, but he hasn’t shared.