(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) asked why the Air Force did not choose the aerial refueling tanker that scored higher in protecting its crew in a speech on the Senate floor. In February, the Air Force awarded a $35 billion contract to build the next generation of aerial refueling tankers to the European-based company Airbus. However, Airbus's tanker scored lower than Boeing's KC-767 in the contract competition in the critical category of "survivability" which measures the aircrafts ability to identify and avoid threats and to protect the crew in the event of an attack.
"Compared to Boeing’s 767, Airbus’s tanker is massive – it’s much bigger than the Air Force originally requested and its size is problematic for many reasons," Murray said in her speech. "Not only are there fewer places Airbus’s tanker can take off and land – but as a larger plane, it is a bigger target and easier to hit. The KC-767 is more agile, and it’s safer for the crews and the aircraft they are refueling.
“Americans want our warfighters flying the safest possible planes. So I’m asking today – why wouldn’t the Pentagon?"
Murray's full remarks on the Senate floor follow:
Mr. President, I think we would all agree – especially in a time of war – that nothing is more important than the safety of our men and women in uniform. And nothing should be more important to our military commanders at the Pentagon.
But Mr. President, I rise today because safety was not the top priority when the military awarded the contract to build the next generation of refueling tankers. If that decision stands – if the contract goes to the European company Airbus, instead of Boeing – our service members will be flying in planes that they – and the military – know are less safe.
And that has me very concerned.
Mr. President, during the tanker competition, the Pentagon considered numerous factors, including survivability – the ability to protect warfighters when they are in harm’s way. But even though it found that Boeing’s tanker was much safer – the Pentagon chose Airbus’s tanker anyway. Mr. President, awarding a contract for a plane that is less safe makes zero sense to me.
Why on earth would our military choose a tanker that rated lower in safety and survivability?
That is the question I have come to the floor to ask. And it is one of the concerns I have raised in a letter I am sending today to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Our Service Members Need the Most Reliable Tankers Possible
Mr. President, I know as well as anyone how important it is that we get these tankers up in the sky. I represent Fairchild Air Force Base, in Spokane, Washington. The airmen and women at Fairchild fly tankers. Refueling tankers are the backbone of our military. Everywhere we have troops, we have tankers. And right now, our tanker fleets are in some of the most dangerous regions of the world.
We know the war on terror will be long and hard – and that our service members will continue to be in dangerous regions for some time to come. We owe it to them to provide planes that will enable them to do their jobs safely – and that will help keep other aircraft safe as they refuel them. But with this contract, the Pentagon did not make safety the top priority.
What Does Survivability Mean?
Mr. President, let me take a moment now to explain what I’m talking about when I say that Boeing’s plane was more survivable. Survivability refers to the ability to keep the warfighter safe. According to Ronald Fogleman, a former Air Force chief of staff and retired general, the more survivable tanker would have the systems to identify and defeat threats, avoid threats, and protect the crew in the event of an attack.
General Fogleman said he was surprised that the Air Force selected Airbus’s tanker, even though it ranked lower in all of these areas. He said, “When I saw the Air Force’s assessment of both candidate aircraft in the survivability area, I was struck by the fact that they clearly saw the KC-767 as the more survivable tanker.”
And he added that he believes the KC-767 is better for the warfighter – and for the military. This is how he put it. He said: “The KC-767 has a superior survivability rating and will have greater operational utility to the joint commander – and provide better protection to air crews that must face real-world threats.”
The Air Force Picked a Plane that is Less Safe
Mr. President, by any measure, Boeing’s tanker would be easier to operate under hostile conditions. And it would provide the crew with better protection. The KC-767 had the newest defense equipment available. According to the Air Force’s rating, it had better missile defense systems, better cockpit displays to allow crews to recognize a possible threat, better armor for the flight crew and critical systems on the plane, and better protection against fuel-tank explosion, along with many other advantages.
But, Mr. President, survivability isn’t just about equipment. A tanker has to be able to take off and land faster. It has to be easy to handle in a hostile environment. And the best tanker is the one that is harder to shoot down.
Our tankers are most vulnerable in situations in which enemies can use shoulder-fired missiles and smaller gunfire – such as when tankers are taking off and landing. Compared to Boeing’s 767, Airbus’s tanker is massive – it’s much bigger than the Air Force originally requested. And its size is problematic for many reasons.
Not only are there fewer places Airbus’s tanker can take off and land – but as a larger plane, it is a bigger target and easier to hit. The KC-767 is more agile, and it’s safer for the crews and the aircraft they are refueling. Mr. President, Americans want our warfighters flying the safest possible planes. So I’m asking today – why wouldn’t the Pentagon?
Congress Must Look out for the Warfighter
Mr. President, Boeing has appealed the Pentagon’s decision to award the tanker contract to Airbus.
The GAO is looking into the process, and I look forward to seeing their decision. But I think Congress has a responsibility here as well. It is our job to be a check on the Administration. We must look out for the warfighter.
Now, some of my colleagues have said that we need to move this process along quickly so we can get these planes into the hands of our Airmen and women. And I agree. Refueling tankers are vital to our Air Force. But that is also why it is just as important that they get the right planes – the planes that will allow them to do their jobs and keep them safe. We have a responsibility to ensure we’re making the right decision for years to come about the safety of our service members and our nation. And that is why I’m raising these concerns today.