As Russian forces press into Ukraine, the world is being reminded of two things: the importance of fuel ($4.25 per gallon in the U.S. and soaring) and the importance of military might. These two things go together.
Our air defense systems need to be strong and effective. One way to keep them reliable is to make sure the aircraft supply chain is based here in the United States while avoiding aircraft produced by companies with a record of problems. Our military is the best in the world, as are the American contractors providing aircraft and other military hardware.
The United States has been almost unchallenged in the sky since the end of World War II. We developed jet engines and deployed them on aircraft. We’ve developed world-dominating planes and radar arrays. And our refueling tanker fleet is also unmatched.
Tankers are unsung heroes of our military might. They allow the Air Force to project force anywhere at any time. No other military can stay in the sky with our Air Force – something the Russians will find out if it comes to that.
Right now, the Pentagon is retooling its tanker fleet ahead of a planned jump to a next-generation tanker. The plane of choice right now is the KC-46. It isn’t perfect; no plane ever will be. But it is already in use, it has passed any number of real-world tests, and we need more as quickly as we can get them into service. This is no time, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, to “go wobbly.”
Yet there is a move on to wobble.
The Pentagon is entertaining the idea of experimenting with a different tanker design, one built by the European conglomerate Airbus and that would be later assembled in the United States. Relying on a foreign-produced aircraft would be a mistake.
Airbus has a design for a tanker, but it is only in the development phase. It hasn’t passed our military’s rigorous tests yet. There are many reasons to be concerned about this. Mostly because Airbus has a poor record across the board when it comes to delivering effective jets.
When it comes to military hardware, for example, “the German air force had rejected delivery of two of the European plane-building consortium’s A400M military transporters, of which it already has 31, with another 20 also yet to be delivered,” Fortune reported three years ago. “The reason: technical issues, including a problem with the bolts holding the propellers onto the craft.”
The company also seems to fall behind schedule on major projects. “One of Europe’s key weapon developments has stalled as the prime contractors have failed to reach agreement on the path forward,” a European official said just this month about another joint project Airbus is supposed to be working on. One of the partners, Dassault, points the finger at Airbus. “We have done everything possible to sign with Airbus, and I’m waiting for Airbus’ signature,” he said.
Even the company’s civilian aircraft are having problems. Qatar Airways, one of Airbus’ prime customers, has grounded its fleet of A350 jets after it discovered cracks in the fuselage of one that was in for a paint job. The airline is now suing Airbus in the U.K.
Reuters reports that at least five other airlines are also having similar problems with Airbus jets. “Following those previously unreported problems, Airbus last year set up a ‘multi-functional task force,’ while studying new material for lightning protection in future A350 jets,” the news service reported last year.
These problems are not insignificant, and while they may all be solved over time, we don’t have time. As we’ve said, all planes have problems. They are unavoidable when a plane is being subjected to frequent take-offs and landings, often under harsh conditions.
However, there is no reason for Americans to import these European problems and outsource tanker production to a foreign company. Airbus should work on making its planes better before even trying to break into the Pentagon contracting market. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force should focus on buying and flying its effective KC-46 tankers. They are tested and ready if we need them in Europe, or anywhere else conflict may arise.