Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Tanker Contract

So - the contract for the Air Force's tanker plane is up for rebid? Despite already having been awarded twice, once to Boeing and once to Northrop Grumman/EADS?

Let's leave aside for a minute the issue of whether the Air Force can manage the business affairs of a hot dog stand in the park, and talk about this plane, for which they propose to spend $35 billion dollars. Why do they need this plane? (A question nobody ever seems to ask.)

The purpose of this plane is to allow mid-air refueling of other airplanes; it is a refueling tanker. Why do we need to refuel planes in mid-air? Isn't that dangerous, and can't they land to refuel?

There was a time when we thought we needed to refuel airplanes in mid-air; it was a long time ago. Back in the good old days of Mutually Assured Destruction, we kept bombers, loaded with nuclear missiles, in the air around the clock; this was so we would be able to retaliate against Russia (sorry, the U.S.S.R.; but a lot of us called it "Russia" just the same) in case it were somehow able to land a nuclear missile on an American city. Since these bombers were in the air around the clock, of course, refueling them in mid-air was a good idea; then they'd never have to land.

So - it's 2008. The U.S.S.R. is gone. Russia is still there, but it's more interested in selling natural gas to Europe, and bullying the neighbors, than in shooting nuclear missiles at the U.S. We've even spent a lot of the years between then and now, destroying nuclear weapons in Russia and here, by mutual agreement.

You tell me why we need to spend $35 billion we don't have on a new refueling tanker.


  1. Famously, President Eisenhower--yes, that old baldy guy who was in office when my generation first became aware of politics and government back in the 1950's--warned the nation, upon leaving office, in 1960, of the dangers of America allowing itself to be wooed and bullied by the so-called "military industrial complex" into feeding the beast's hunger for ever more sophisticated and expensive military hardware, all in the name of "security" or "mutually assured destruction" (Cold War jargon for the parity which perpetuates stalemate).

    Reagan supporters claimed, and they still claim, that with the implosion of the old Soviet Union-- which had served as the ideological boogeyman for 50 years--we in the West no longer had to maintain our enormous over-kill arsenal. In other words, we no longer needed to support, or depend upon, the wartime materiel which once had--along with Detroit--defined the economic engine which gave America industrial bragging-rights throughout the post-War period. Without the Raging Russian Bear, we just didn't need all that weaponry.

    Well, the military-industrial complex sat by in gloomy meditation for a couple or years, frowning, pouting, and decided that this wasn't acceptable. No more missiles? No more guns? No more tanks? Nonsense! The world always needs more of these. If we can't sell them to our own government, then why not to other governments? Then they had the next bright idea (!). Limited regional wars! There have always been plenty of those. Civil wars, wars of border dispute, wars of ethnic cleansing, or just obstreperous little countries getting bellicose and cocky and wanting to goose-step their way into the international spotlight, like Korea or Iran or Pakistan. The possibilities were endless!

    But wait! There's more! Planes hitting the World Trade Center Towers! Poor little Bushy reading to the kindergartners in Florida--that dumb lip-folded consternation, and fake indignation--but old Cheney had it all figured out. This was just the hoped-for event his cronies had been praying for! An unprovoked homeland terror strike!

    Now, children, gather round and you shall learn, we're now engaged in an endless, horizonless "War on Terror". So different from all the other wars in history, so frightening and unpredictable, requiring us to confront enemies, both real and imagined, anywhere on the globe they can be found (or created, as the case may be).

    The military-industrial complex was on the ropes there, for a few brief years, but good times are back again. We're back to funding the Pentagon at historic levels. Strike up the band! Support the troops! Danger, danger, Will Robinson, there's danger everywhere, and we need all the tools in our arsenal to defeat it!

    Do you suppose that if Iraq had been a member of NATO, it would have had the right to go before that august assembly and ask for help to fight the invading armies of the United States of a-MUR-ka?

    Refueling tankers in mid-air. How retro! Let's see, where would we need to bomb that would require that we use in flight refueling? Should we bomb Iran? No problem! We've got bases in Saudi Arabia, we've got carriers in the Gulf. Should we bomb Afganistan? Should we bomb China or Japan or Indonesia? Piece of cake! Since America still possesses enough nuclear and non-nuclear warheads to flatten the entire earth many times over, there'll always be shells in the chamber. What's our get-up response time nowadays? 15 minutes? Can't we still "promise" "total retaliation" "everywhere in the world" at the drop of a hat? But we need those bombers refueling in mid-air! Gotta have those behemoths tootling along at 500 mph, gobbling up untold amounts of jet fuel. What is jet fuel, per gallon, these days? Ain't cheap! And the refueling vehicles! Two customers for the price of one plane flying!

    And during refueling...what do they say about dragonflies mating? That's when they're most vulnerable! But, hey!, we got back-up. Those bombers are just our third line of defense. How long does it take to fly one of those albatrosses across the Pacific? No problem! We've got bases around the globe! It's the ring of security, the outermost frontier of technological progress! We don't need no badges, we just need more baseless bombers!

    "Hey, Joe, how long we been up here? Suppose the engines get tired, what're our chances?" "Search me, Pete, I don't know what the Hell we're doing up here anyway. What does it cost the American taxpayer to support this operation? Million dollars a minute?" "Probably." "Well, wake me up if you see any interesting clouds, Joe." "Roger, Pete, nighty-night."

  2. Sigh. I can't even argue because it's all true. And 75 years ago, in his early "Saint" books, Leslie Charteris was ranting about the Merchants of Death. Some things don't change...

  3. I agree the Military is a big boondoggle much of the time, but I think the point of this program is that the old tankers are getting too old and so they want an updated design. Given that it can take years, maybe over a decade, to go from design to service for a new plane, it is hard to discuss the need. Frankly, we don't know what we'll need ten years from now. A lot can change in ten years, particularly today, when change seems to happen so fast.

    That's the same reason we build Nuclear Aircraft Carriers - we don't know what we'll need down the line, and they can take over ten years just to build one. Plus, if you don't keep at least one under construction, we lose the capacity to make ships - gotta keep that expertise around in case we need it.

    Of all the dumb things we spend money on, this one doesn't worry me as much - it is something basic, not pie in the sky (like Star Wars) so we can at least be confident that at some point, after billions in overruns, we actually will end up with functional tankers that will fly for 30 years or more.

  4. DBB, you're even right - but what bothers me is not so much that we're spending all this money on military hardware to fight the last war. It's that nobody ever asks the questions. It's become sacrosanct.

  5. I agree we tend to focus on fighting the last war instead of the next one, but in this case, it seems mostly about keeping active a capability - that of refueling aircraft in flight, that one could imagine being useful no matter what war we fight.

  6. I'm sorry, but this argument is totally absurd. Long range bombers--in tactical terms--became obsolete 40 years ago. That's been publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon in Senate Hearings for decades.

    The Iraq War was fought, in large part, to test and demonstrate the latest generation of weaponry--a sad and perhaps shocking fact, but quite true. What it proved is that tactical fighter bombers can deliver lethal strikes more efficiently, and with less risk, than ever before. Large scale bomber fortresses which can accommodate old-style bomber loads, and spread "saturation" devastation over broad swaths of territory, make no sense anymore, neither in large scale conflicts--such as was once envisioned by the Cold War planners--nor in limited "regional" war situations like those in Iraq or Afghanistan. The military has been advocating the use of tactical jet fighter-bombers since the Korean War. And now we have even more sophisticated planes, which can fly faster, hide from traditional radar shields, and deliver even more potent explosive devices with incredible accuracy.

    The need to "re-fuel" large oversized bombers for extended flights, without having to land, no longer exists. The assertion that we need to keep building extinct military behemoths in order to keep the military industrial complex healthy and running sounds like the worst Pentagon justifications. What you end up with is weaponry which is outdated even before it's produced. The United States can no longer afford the luxury of "investing" in weapons "just to keep the engine running." We've run out of cheap gas (in a manner of speaking), and can no longer afford it.

    And please don't insist that $35 billion dollars is a "relative pittance"! This kind of waste is what keeps us from achieving the real security of pensions, health care, environmental and workplace protections, and all the other domestic programs which are allowed to go begging.

  7. It isn't just large scale strategic bombers that refuel in flight - small tactical fighters do so also. In fact, they have more need to do so - some of the large bombers have ranges so long that they probably don't need to refuel in flight, even without a base in the area of attack. So if tactical fighters are useful, so can refueling them be useful. Though really, the thing is, we really don't know what will be needed or "obsolete" 30 years from now, and that's the sort of thinking that goes into keeping the capability.

  8. Military technology, like science, doesn't go backwards. Each new discovery and advance supersedes what came before, making the quality of the contest a race to keep current. France spent a fortune on building fortifications along its northeastern border to stifle any German invasion, but we know how well that worked.

    Strategic fortress bombers with huge loads are a thing of the past. The future--as far as we can see--belongs to light, fast, maneuverable, jet aircraft armed with "smart" bombs. This has been known for a long time. Beyond that, there are unmanned craft, and the whole field of sophisticated electronic soft- and hard-ware. Our troops in Iraq didn't need airborn refueling vehicles; they needed better uniforms, better transport and tactical vehicles, and better plans. Poor military planning is at the heart of most of the (tactical) problems we face today. Investing in obsolete technology just makes the contractors rich; it doesn't make us safer.

  9. Anonymous2:48 PM

    So, we aren't going to aim long range missiles at anyone anymore? I wish we wouldn't aim anything at anyone, with the except of good-will, but sheese... Imagine a missile aimed at one of these babies in the air. The mind boggles. No wonder I spend my week-ends with the SCA.