By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
They might be rivals on gridiron, but Alabama and Georgia are teaming up to urge the Air Force to move forward with a competition to build the next generation of refueling tankers, a potentially massive contract and economic boon for both states.
U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala, Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. co-authored a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressing their support of the KC-Y Tanker Program, a proposed process of building redesigned refueling tankers. The senators cited the importance of transparency in government contracts.
“We agree with many senior Department of Defense officials, including Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, that competition is critical to ensuring the best quality and cost for defense acquisitions,” the letter reads. “Competition is important to driving innovation and to ensuring both our nation’s servicemembers and taxpayers are best served by the defense procurement processes.”
A new competition to build the next tanker would allow Lockheed Martin to propose its LMXT aircraft that the company argues offers greater capabilities than the current Boeing KC-46. If selected for the project, Lockheed plans to take Airbus 330 aircraft built in Mobile and modify them to military specifications at its facility in Marietta, Ga. The project could mean as many as 1,200 jobs between the two states.
The letter comes after Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall publicly cast doubts that a competition would go forward for a new tanker. At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Kendall said he didn’t see the demand for a new aircraft, signaling that the Air Force could continue purchasing Boeing KC-46 tankers.
“I love competition. I’m all for it. It’s the best tool (to) have to reduce costs. But we actually have to have a demand for the other aircraft that’s being offered,” Kendall told lawmakers according to Breaking Defense.
“And I’m trying to be as transparent and honest about this as I can be. It is not as certain as it was a year ago, let’s say, that we’re going to do a competition,” he said. “And I don’t want people to have a misimpression about that. [But] we have not made a final decision yet.”
There is a bitter history when it comes to Air Force tankers in Alabama. In 2008, a bid to build the KC-X was initially won by Airbus and Northrup-Grumman, which planned to build the tankers in Mobile. After a challenge from Boeing, that decision was overturned and eventually reversed in 2011, giving the $40 billion contract to the Chicago-based aircraft maker.
Since then, Boeing’s tanker has been riddled with problems in the form of delays, cost overruns and redesigns. The aircraft won’t be commissioned at full capability until at least 2024 because of a refueling vision system had to be redesigned, according to Breaking Defense.
The Air Force has gone back and forth on the prospect of a competition for an upgraded tanker in the KC-Y. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Air Force in June 2021 indicated it would invite competition for a brand new tanker rather than continue with the original plan to only allow a competition among existing aircraft.
The Alabama and Georgia senators, no doubt keen to Kendall’s comments in committee, are making it clear to Austin that they believe a competition for a new aircraft is the right policy.
“We believe the KC-Y program is critical to modernizing our aging KC-135 tanker fleet and could provide options for addressing complex and growing threats facing our nation,” the senators said. “We are encouraged to see funding for it in the Fiscal Year 2023 Future Years Defense Program Plan.”