Policy Objectives Must Be Considered When Awarding Military Contracts

With war now raging in Ukraine, we are witnessing the importance of the United States military as a leader in world affairs. To be that leader requires many things especially well-trained personnel and top of the line equipment, both ready to swing from peacetime to a war footing in a moment’s notice.

Developing and deploying that equipment is both a critical component and a big business. Most of those contracts are for essential equipment that doesn’t get much attention as opposed to the fancy fighter planes we so often hear about with ultra-expensive price tags. One example of that is the Air Force’s refueler fleet. With 650 tanker aircraft, the USAF owns the refueling sky for military aircraft.

The latest addition is the Boeing KC-46. As the winner of a competition for this order a decade ago, there are 175 slated for deployment in 2023, it’s cleared to refuel some 85 percent of the existing military fleet. It’s already earning praise from military leaders and flight crews with a few dozen already off the assembly line and functioning over Germany and Poland, giving support to NATO forces in the region.

The KC-46 has “some key capabilities that I would like to see going into the future,” Gen. Jacqueline Desiree Van Ovost says. “It’s part of the network—it’s connected. And it can do more. It’s multi-modal. It can do drogue and probe stick boom refueling.” Van Ovost is the leader of the United States Transportation Command and knows that the KC-46 is exactly what the military needs. The platform is even supporting our allies in Europe. “The KC-46A, its aircrews, maintenance and support personnel performed magnificently over the last seven weeks in Spain.” The USAF believes it is positioned well to maintain its air refueling superiority for many years to come.

However, the fight for these contracts never stops. Trying to break in is the European plane maker Airbus and an American partner who have declared that they intend to submit a bid to build tanker refueling aircraft, known for now as KC-Y, to be modified in the United States. The European based company is trying to do some manufacturing in the United States to make the use of a foreign manufacturer more attractive to the Pentagon. While they have strong allies advocating for this domestically, it seems clear that there is no need to reopen this issue now. The KC-46’s are just entering service and will have a long life ahead of them.

Meanwhile, the European company doesn’t look like such a great partner right now. While the U.S. and our partners are hammering Russia with economic sanctions for their illegal invasion of Ukraine, Airbus is openly opposing that policy. It wants to maintain its source of Russian titanium, a metal used in making aircraft.

“Sanctions on Russian titanium would hardly harm Russia, because they only account for a small part of export revenues there,” an Airbus spokesman said after the company’s CEO spoke against sanctions. “But they [sanctions] would massively damage the entire aerospace industry across Europe.” Sanctions, of course, aren’t about hurting an industry; they are about winning a war without putting troops on the ground at risk. Other European governments are willing to go along with these sanctions. Airbus is the outlier on its own continent.

Unfortunately, it appears as if Airbus is more interested in making money with U.S. military contracts but isn’t so interested in supporting U.S. and European military and humanitarian objectives. Building planes for the Air Force should be about meeting military needs, not about fulfilling corporate objective and not even about creating civilian jobs for American workers. The KC-46 is meeting our military needs and is positioned to do so for many years to come. Any tanker “competition” now would be a needless distraction at a time when military and humanitarian policy must be our first consideration.