Epic Air Force tanker saga ends with Boeing contract

The NewGen Tanker demonstrates its ability to simultaneously refuel two F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft from the wing air refueling pods. (Boeing photo illustration)

Aerial refueling tankers aren't the most glamorous planes in the Air Force's arsenal, but they are the unsung heroes of the skies, giving fighters and bombers the mid-flight fill-ups they need to keep flying. With the current tanker fleet dating back to the 1950s, the Pentagon announced today that it has made its long-delayed decision about which company will build a new version, seemingly ending a decade-long scandal-filled saga to get a replacement refueling tanker off the ground.

"We announce that the Air Force has selected the KC-X proposal provided by the Boeing Company," said Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley as he revealed that the Chicago-based company is the Pentagon's choice to build the next generation of the Air Force's airborne refueler.

In giving the $35 billion contract to Boeing, the Air Force has forsaken the company's European arch rival EADS, the parent company of Airbus, which has been locked in a fierce competition with Boeing for the contract to replace the American company's aging refueling plane, the KC-135 Stratotanker, which has been flying its range-extending flights for the Air Force since 1956.

The Air Force's much-anticipated decision today reversed one that it made less than three years ago. In fact, it was the third time that the Air Force had awarded the multi-billion dollar contract to build the mammoth planes to one of the same two competing companies: In 2001, the Air Force announced it would lease 100 tankers from Boeing, but the deal fell apart two years later after it was revealed that Boeing executives had offered a job to the Air Force acquisitions officer overseeing the contract.

In 2008, the Air Force chose EADS to build its new tanker amid outrage by many, including a number of key critics on Capitol Hill, that a European company had been awarded one of the most lucrative military contracts in American history. That deal too fell apart when the Government Accountability Office found that the Air Force had made major mistakes in its procurement process.

Boeing formally protested the 2008 decision to award the contract to EADS. EADS will likely protest today's decision to give it to Boeing.

Carter Yang is a Washington-based producer for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. He covers aviation, transportation, and homeland security.

  • Carter Yang

    Carter Yang is a Washington, D.C.-based producer for the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. He covers aviation and transportation.


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