Modern wars aren’t fought just with guns, tanks, missiles, and bombs. To fight wars today, the US military depends on a 27-foot telescopic rod that dispenses a torrent of jet fuel at the rate of 1,000 gallons a minute. Without this metal boom and the airplane that tows it across the sky, the American military machine doesn’t move beyond our own shores.
When the first American forces deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, they were carried in the bellies of cavernous transport planes that would never have completed the journey from base to battlefield without refueling along the way. When stealth aircraft launched a preemptive strike on the purported hideout of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, a refueling tanker kept them from plummeting into the ocean. These essential rendezvous usually happen 25,000 feet above the earth.
The receiving plane approaches the tanker from behind. When the two planes are nearly touching, a boom operator lying on his belly in the tanker’s tail, peering out a glass window like a 1940s bombardier, guides his instrument into a fuel port near the nose of the thirsty plane and starts pumping. A tanker can top off the 35,000-gallon tanks of the gargantuan C-17 cargo plane in half an hour and smaller planes in less than five minutes. At that rate, it could refuel the average automobile in less than two seconds.
Take away the tankers and you neuter the US armed forces. As the attendants of these midair pit stops are fond of reminding their customers, “You can’t kick ass without tanker gas.”
Yet just how long the tankers can keep kicking ass is a question. The workhorses of the refueling fleet are 50-year-old airplanes that went into service when Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House. To keep these 400 or so old planes flying—and from falling apart—they’ve been fitted with new engines, new electronic guidance systems, even new wings. But the planes otherwise are ancient.
Today’s tanker pilots are flying airplanes first flown by their grandfathers. These planes won’t all be replaced until the middle of this century, at which point they’ll be 80 years old. The pilots who will fly the planes then haven’t been born yet.
For nearly a decade, the military’s leadership and its overseers in Congress have tried and failed to replace the tankers with newer models. With any luck, they’ll achieve the mission sometime in the coming weeks. By late December, the Air Force has promised to award a contract for new tankers, potentially worth up to $40 billion, to one of two companies—Boeing, the largest aircraft manufacturer in the United States, or the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), which owns Airbus, the largest plane builder in Europe.
If the Air Force meets its deadline, the award will bring to a close the most controversial, politically contentious, and personally ruinous military contract in modern history. The damage this deal has wrought, measured in wasted taxpayer dollars and wasted lives, includes two people who have gone to prison; one CEO who has resigned in disgrace; two members of Congress who have died unable to close the deal and another who has been indelibly tainted by scandal; the destroyed credibility of some senior military leaders; and, in the end, a US military that is still being moved around the world by an airplane that will, sooner rather than later, be unfit to fly.
This is not the story of how the US government bought an airplane but of how it has failed to buy an airplane. And of how a generation of leaders has abrogated the wise stewardship of the public’s wealth in favor of narrower institutional concerns and petty grievances. It’s a story of how business gets done in Washington.