Topeka The Obama administration is getting pressure from the Kansas congressional delegation to act quickly on awarding a new contract for Air Force refueling tankers.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt and Sen. Pat Roberts insist that a decision to build the next generation of tankers is vital to national security and the Kansas economy.
The two Kansas Republicans have gone so far as to invite Peter Orzsag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to come to Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base and fly in one of the tankers.
Many of the aircraft were delivered to the Air Force during the Eisenhower administration. However, the Obama administration has suggested that any decision to award a new contract be delayed by up to five years.
The Air Force has 476 refueling tankers, including 417 KC-135 models first flown in the 1950s.
The Air Force selected Northrop Grumman/EADS over rival Boeing Co. for the tanker project last year, but then it reopened the bidding after the Government Accounting Office found flaws with the decision. Had Chicago-based Boeing won the contract, the finishing militarization of the tanker would have been done at Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems plant in Wichita.
In a letter to Orzsag, Roberts and Tiahrt even provided a flight itinerary from Andrews Air Force Base to McConnell.
“We have no doubt that such a trip will illustrate better than anything else how important a new tanker is our nation,” they wrote. “We also believe that it would be very worthwhile to see the next generation tankers Boeing Wichita has built for our allies.”
McConnell is home of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing and soon to be the largest tanker base in the United States. But just as important is the Boeing factory on the west side of the base. A new contract for tankers could mean additional jobs for the Wichita plant.
The plant already completes work on tankers for Italy and Japan.
Rep. Jerry Moran, also a Kansas Republican, sent a letter to the president earlier in the week, saying “in no way should our military delay this top priority.”
Tiahrt’s office said Friday that Boeing estimates that employment at its KC-X tanker finishing center in Wichita will be about 300 to 500 workers. Tiahrt said the resulting economic ripples would create approximately 3,800 jobs for Kansas and $145 million annually.
Tiahrt and Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat from Washington, also sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking him to follow guidelines in awarding the next tanker contract. Above all, they said, the process must be fair to all parties.
The letter asks that the Pentagon consider, among other criteria, the cost over the life of the new tanker program and subsidies EADS receives from several nations. Some $5 billion in subsidies to develop the EADS tanker are the subject of a World Trade Organization complaint filed by the U.S.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday that Gates was still reviewing the tanker issue and hadn’t made a decision to delay the bid process.
“The secretary is going to make his decisions based upon what is in the best interest of our nation’s security,” Morrell said. “And ultimately it’s up to the president and the Congress to decide if they want to adhere to his advice.”
Gates has said that he intends to restart the tanker competition this spring.