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Senator Murray: It's Congress's Job to Get Answers on Tanker Contract

Jun 05 2008

In Senate speech, Murray says that Congress must look at factors that GAO can't weigh including jobs, illegal subsidies, and construction costs

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, in a speech on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) called on her colleagues in the Senate to demand the Defense Department answer numerous questions about its decision to award the contract to build the next generation of aerial refueling tankers to the European company Airbus. 

Boeing has formally protested the Pentagon's decision, and the Government Accountability Office is expected to make a determination on the protest in the next couple of weeks. 

In her speech, Senator Murray reminded her colleagues that the GAO can only decide whether the Defense Department followed procurement law when it chose a supplier.  GAO can’t decide whether the Defense Department made the right decision for the taxpayers – or our troops.  Congress must decide which tanker serves our nation’s interests.

“Even if it’s obvious that the Airbus plane costs more, has unproven technology, or does not meet the intended mission, GAO can’t take any action to ensure that the contract is justified or in the best interest of our military or national security,” Senator Murray said in her speech.  “I believe that because of GAO’s limited role, Congress must look carefully at whether major defense acquisitions are in line with the concerns of the American people.”

“We need real answers before we move forward on this contract,” Senator Murray added.  “And we must demand that the Administration make the case for why we should buy an unproven and costly Airbus tanker.”

The full text of Senator Murray’s speech as prepared follows:

Mr. President, over the years, this Congress has spent countless hours fighting for the best and safest equipment possible for our men and women in the military.  Whether it was better weapons, or enough body armor and armored humvees, we have worked tirelessly to make sure our troops around the world have what they need to do their jobs and return home safely to their families.

Well, Mr. President, the Pentagon is now on the verge of purchasing the next generation of aerial refueling tankers – a decision that will cost billions of dollars and affect our service members for decades.  But I have serious concerns about the Administration’s decision to buy these planes from Airbus, a subsidized company that has never produced refueling tankers before.  And I believe we must again fight to ensure that our troops – and our taxpayers – get the right plane.

Now, I’m not the only one with concerns.  Because this contest was flawed from the beginning and the rules were changed throughout – Boeing has filed its first-ever protest of the bidding process with the Government Accountability Office.  The GAO is expected to make a ruling in the next few weeks, and we’re all awaiting its decision.

But, Mr. President, the GAO investigation has a very narrow scope.  The GAO is only allowed to determine whether the letter of the law was followed in the selection process.  It can’t look at anything beyond that.  So, even if it’s obvious that the Airbus plane costs more, has unproven technology, or does not meet the intended mission, GAO can’t take any action to ensure that the contract is justified or in the best interest of our military or national security.  And I’ve come to the floor today because I believe that because of GAO’s limited role, Congress must look carefully at whether major defense acquisitions are in line with the concerns of the American people.

Mr. President, we need real answers before we move forward on this contract.  And we must demand that the Administration make the case for why we should buy an unproven and costly Airbus tanker.

The Pentagon has Refused to Answer Tough Questions

Let me begin by outlining why I’m so concerned.  Mr. President, when you examine both planes carefully, it’s clear that Boeing’s tanker is superior.  Yet even though I’ve asked numerous questions in committee hearings, and in letters, and face to face in meetings in my office, no one has been able to make the case for why we should buy the Airbus tanker.  Not the Air Force.  Not the Pentagon.  And not the Commander in Chief.

Compared to Boeing’s tanker, Airbus’s A-330 is much larger, less efficient, and more expensive.  It’s so big, it can’t use hundreds of hangars, ramps, and runways around the globe.  And it burns more fuel and will cost billions of dollars more to maintain over the lifetime of the fleet.  Yet the Pentagon hasn’t explained why Airbus’s plane is the better buy.

The Air Force competition found that the Boeing’s 767 is more survivable than the A-330 – it’s better equipped to protect our warfighters when they are in harm’s way.  Yet the Pentagon hasn’t explained why in the world it wants to give the Air Force a plane that just doesn’t match up.

And Airbus has never built a refueling tanker – its technology is unproven, and it’s proposing to do some assembly at plants in Alabama that don’t even exist.  Yet the Pentagon hasn’t explained why this is a better investment than a plane built by Boeing – the same company who has been supplying our tankers for nearly 70 years.

Mr. President, I also have serious questions about whether we should give a foreign company a multi-billion-dollar contract to build a major piece of our military defense.  If this contract goes forward we would be handing billions of dollars in critical research and development funding to a foreign company – owned by foreign governments – to learn how to build a military plane flown by American air crews.  And I’m talking about airplanes that are the backbone of our entire military strength.  Our tankers refuel planes and aircraft from every single branch of our military.  As long as we control the technology to build these tankers, we control our skies and our security.  Yet the Pentagon hasn’t explained why it would let all of this slip away.

And finally, Mr. President, Airbus has always had a leg up on the American aerospace industry because the European Union floods it with subsidies.  In fact, our government currently has a case pending before the WTO accusing Airbus of illegal business practices.  Yet I’ve been astounded that the Defense Department hasn’t been able to answer why in the world we would turn around and give this company a major defense contract.

Experts Are Also Asking Questions

Mr. President, I’m not the only one asking questions.  Increasingly, even experts in military contracting are demanding answers, too.  Mr. President, one of those experts is Dr. Loren Thompson – who, according to even the Secretary of the Air Force, was given access to inside information on the decision-making process.

Dr. Thompson now believes the contract process has been less than transparent.  He recently wrote an article saying that he believes the military has failed to make its case about why it chose the Airbus plane.  He wrote that he, too, wants an explanation for why the military believes the A-330 is superior to the 767, when Airbus’s tanker is bigger, heavier, untested, and unproven.  As he put it last week, “The service has failed to answer even the most basic questions about how the decision was made to deny the contract to Boeing….  The Air Force has some explaining to do.”

Congress has to get involved

Now, Mr. President, as I said earlier – despite all of these questions, the GAO isn’t allowed to dig for the answers.  In fact, its role in analyzing this decision is very limited.  The GAO can only look at whether the Pentagon followed the laws and regulations that govern the federal procurement process.   It can’t consider the real-world concerns of Congress and the American people.  And it can’t even address whether the military made the right decision for our service members.

And that’s why Congress has to get involved.  Mr. President, it’s our job to demand that we get answers to those questions before we go any further.  Congress has to ask whether this contract will leave our service members unprotected.  Congress has to ask whether Airbus’s plane will cost too much in military construction, fuel, and maintenance.  Congress has to ask whether our workers and our national economy will suffer if we outsource this major aerospace contract.  And Congress needs to decide whether this contract will put our national security at risk.

Taxpayers Deserve Answers

Mr. President, this is a major decision.  We are talking about a contract that will cost at least $35 billion – and that could cost the taxpayers more than $100 billion over the life of these planes – in purchasing costs alone.  Yet the Pentagon just hasn’t made its case for buying the Airbus planes.  Mr. President, “I don’t know,” isn’t an acceptable response when you’re talking about billions of taxpayer dollars and the safety of our service members.  The taxpayers deserve answers.  Our service members deserve answers.  And I hope my colleagues will stand with me and demand the Defense Department justify its decision.