Boeing Tanker Imbroglio
By: Winslow Wheeler | October 27, 2005
The first major American defense procurement scandal of the 21st century was the proposal for the Air Force to lease, not buy, 100 Boeing 767 aircraft to use as “tankers” to refuel combat aircraft in mid-air. The scheme had all the elements of a good old fashioned Pentagon scandal: extraordinarily high cost for a new aircraft that brought little, if any, improvement to existing systems; sanctimonious declaration by experts, some of them in uniform, of great urgency to supplant a system that will not need replacement for decades; and high-handed wrongdoing in corporate boardrooms and the hallways of the Pentagon, ultimately leading to jail time for two major actors.
There were multiple efforts in the Air Force and Congress to kill off studies of alternatives and to mis-estimate the real costs. However, analyses from the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Defense Inspector General, and a quasi-independent Pentagon body, the Defense Science Board, ultimately made apparent just how much of a stinker the entire proposal truly was. Sen. John McCain started out just talking about the atrocious scheme, but he ultimately took meaningful action: first to investigate Boeing and the Air Force and then to kill off legislation he earlier supported to permit the ill-advised acquisition.
The Congressional Research Service, which also contributed important studies of the controversy, has recently summarized the tawdry history of the scandal. This six page summary makes especially instructive reading by pointing out how misleading some studies from the Pentagon can be when decision makers decide the answers before they ask any questions.