Steve Sherman, World events have educated Americans that reliance on foreign produced energy, goods and services is a big mistake.
The Biden Administration should do an audit of all the government purchased products to find ways to reduce reliance on foreign produced goods. With the military this is especially important because the last thing America needs is a reliance on foreign made military hardware.
History does not repeat, as they say, but it does echo. As Russian tanks and troops poured into Ukraine this year, members of the European Union and NATO learned that lesson once again. Because Germany wanted energy, but it wasn’t willing or able to produce that energy itself, it had come to depend on natural gas imported from Russia.
That gas is no longer available.
This is making for some uncomfortable conversations in German. But there is a key lesson here for Americans as well. If you import something you absolutely need, you may find it can be taken away the moment you need it most. The Biden Administration is learning this now with Russian extracted oil and gas.
This lesson applies to important defense platforms as well.
In recent years, some in the United States have been pushing to “diversify” the Air Force’s tanker fleet, by adding a European-designed Airbus tanker to the existing fleet of American-made KC-46 tankers.
Tankers are an often-overlooked part of the air fleet, but they are crucial. Without the fuel they provide, the sexier fighter and bomber aircraft wouldn’t be able to fly as far or as long, and the air dominance that our military needs could be at risk. As the Ukraine situation shows, the world is more dangerous than ever, and the U.S. could be called to act at any moment.
The KC-46 is already in service, helping the Air Force replace its aging fleet of KC-135 tankers. The KC-46 has had some problems during its development, but any new aircraft does. Those problems have been dealt with during shakeouts, and the plane has cleared all the operational hurdles in its path. It has the armor and the upgrades the Pentagon asked for, and it can be improved even while it remains in service. A new design from Europe would need expensive upgrades just to comply with the regulations the KC-46 already meets. That would make it more expensive than a plane that is already in development and is likely to see its expense decline as it scales.
The plane is assembled on a dedicated assembly line here in the U.S. and the contractor is able to provide a steady supply of planes so the Air Force can keep retiring the KC-135. In fact, the Pentagon is asking for more; it wants to buy 15 this year.
The new presidential administration is happy as well. “As we look at our requirements further out, [they] start to look more like a modified KC-46 than they do a completely new design,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said recently. He added that: “I think there’s still a possibility of competition out there, but as we’ve looked at our requirements, the likelihood of a competition has come down.”
One requirement that Kendall doesn’t mention, but should be considering, is the sourcing of the tankers. As COVID has tangled supply lines, Americans have come to realize that making things closer to home is easier and often better than importing them. That is so much truer when the object we are talking about is an important defense tool, rather than a roll of toilet tissue.
The talk about relying on Airbus for some tankers has finally quieted. “The possibility of a ‘bridge tanker’ competition to cover the gap between the end of the current KC-46 program and a future U.S. Air Force refueler is looking less likely as the service continues to refine its requirements for the future fleet,” Aviation Week reported last month.
But bad ideas seem to have a way of hanging around, and American policymakers need to make certain that this one doesn’t make a comeback. The Air Force needs a reliable tanker fleet, one that is designed and manufactured by Americans here in the United States. If we look overseas for our defense, we will come to regret it.
The Biden Administration should take note and resist the importation of American military infrastructure from unreliable foreign producers.