The men and women of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing based at Fairchild Air Force Base deserve the nation's gratitude for their heroic service after Sept. 11. The airborne refueling stations that these men and women operate not only kept air combat patrols flying over 27 U.S. cities to protect our homeland, but also enabled our fighters and bombers to defeat the Taliban in what has been dubbed "America's first tanker war."
When I visited Fairchild in February, I met with the men and women who fly these tankers. They are hard-working, determined patriots who serve their country in the noblest way possible -- by serving their country in the armed forces.
They are putting themselves in harm's way to protect the freedoms we hold dear. I believe they should have the most advanced and safest equipment that their grateful nation can provide and I am working in the Senate to ensure they do.
It is fair to say that we would not have had such a swift and complete victory in Afghanistan without air tankers. Tankers are the backbone of our air capability. They enable the United States to project force and to strike targets -- and terrorists -- anywhere in the world. Over the last decade -- from Iraq to Bosnia to Afghanistan -- the deployment of air tankers has grown exponentially.
To strike targets in Afghanistan, bombers and fighter-bombers required an unprecedented number of mid-air refuelings. During the heaviest bombing of the war, 30 to 35 tankers were in the air nearly around the clock to refuel 100 tactical jets. U.S. bombers flying from the airbase on Diego Garcia, 3,000 miles away required three refuelings to complete their missions. Flying the B-2 stealth bomber from its home in Missouri to Afghanistan and back required nine in-air refuelings. Even carrier-based warplanes needed the aid of air tankers to strike targets in Afghanistan.
But America's tanker fleet is old and outdated. With an average age of 41 years old, one-third of the fleet is unfit to fly at any given time due to mechanical failure, and each plane requires a full year of maintenance for every four years spent on duty. There is no question they must be replaced with new tankers -- the only question is when.
Many of us believe we should replace old tankers sooner rather than later. But late last year, there was no available money in the defense budget to purchase new tankers outright. Money may have been available in future years, but the Air Force needs new tankers now, not years from now. For this reason, I worked as one of the key architects of a plan to lease new tankers as the only way to quickly upgrade and modernize our tanker capability.
In December, Congress approved -- and the President signed -- legislation to authorize the Air Force to negotiate with Boeing on a 10-year lease of 100 new 767 aircraft to use as air tankers.
Boeing has a first-rate track record on air tankers. Not only did the company build the entire current fleet of KC-135s, but it is currently building 767 tankers for the Italian and Japanese Air Forces. Boeing is also developing a "smart tanker" that adds surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to its air refueling mission.
But there is an orchestrated effort back in Washington, D.C. to scuttle the plan. Initially, opponents of the Air Force lease objected to the fact that Boeing, not Airbus, would build the planes. While some in Congress think that French workers should build U.S. Air Force planes, I believe that those jobs should stay here in America.
Eventually Boeing's critics were temporarily silenced when an Air Force analysis concluded that Airbus doesn't even build an air tanker.
Now, the lease opponents are attacking the terms of the lease, despite the fact that the Air Force is still in talks with Boeing over what those terms will be.
Once the two sides agree to terms, the Air Force will report back to Congress, to ensure that the taxpayers get the best deal.
As one of the principal architects of the lease program, I will continue to fight to get this critical military asset into the hands of the men and women who volunteer to protect American security.
And I will continue to press for this lease deal for America's defense. American workers and America's military deserve nothing less.