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No need for quick tanker deal - Adviser
Updated: 2004-05-13 11:27

The U.S. Air Force has no pressing need to start phasing out its refueling planes, a Pentagon-commissioned report made available Wednesday said, in a fresh blow to a stalled $23.5 billion Boeing Co. tanker deal.

The report by a task force of the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, found "no compelling material or financial reason" to replace the KC-135 tankers until a traditional analysis of alternatives was completed -- a process the Pentagon has said could take up to 18 months.

New 767 aircraft may not be required, the task force added, citing the possibility of replacing engines on the old aircraft, converting retired DC-10 aircraft or developing new tankers with more modern airframes.

Boeing must decide whether to close the production line within a few months if the deal to lease and sell 100 modified 767s as mid-air tankers stays stalled, a top company executive said Tuesday night.

"We're kind of getting to the place over the next few months where we need to make a decision," Alan Mulally, president and chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told reporters in Seattle.

Twenty-two 767s are on order, or about two years' worth of production at the current delivery rate.

The task force, set up at the Defense Department's request, cited a "consensus" view that corrosion was "manageable" on the existing fleet of KC-135 refueling tankers, the average age of which is 44.

GOOD TO 2040

"Based on fatigue life, airframe capable to 2040," said a slide used to brief Capitol Hill staff Wednesday afternoon and obtained by Reuters.

The Air Force had argued that the age of the KC-135s and the growing cost of maintaining them was driving the need for a unique lease-and-buy deal that would get new tankers into service more quickly than the service could otherwise afford.

"The KC-135E fleet -- our oldest -- is beset with problems that adversely impact its utility to the Air Force, our sister services, and our friends and allies," Air Force Secretary James Roche told the Senate Commerce Committee last September.

The Air Force and Boeing each said they had not yet seen a copy of the study but would study it carefully.

"The Air Force fully supports Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld's approach," said Major Cheryl Law. "We share the same objective -- good stewardship of taxpayer dollars while beginning a tanker recapitalization effort."

Rumsfeld has suspended talks with Boeing until he can weigh the task force's findings along with reports by the Pentagon's inspector general and a National Defense University inquiry into the procurement process used in the tanker deal.

Last month, the inspector general found the Air Force used "an inappropriate business strategy" that failed to use "best business practices" in negotiating the $23.5 billion project.

Doug Kennett, a Boeing spokesman, said, "We believe that the 767 is clearly the best solution to our nation's aging tanker needs."

Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said the report showed the Air Force and Boeing had been "crying wolf over the corrosion problems in the fleet to create an emergency that never existed."

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