Military News

Budget showdown worries JBLM workers, could upend Boeing tanker contract

Boeing’s first KC-46 tanker test aircraft, a 767-2C, conducts testing on its inaugural flight on December 28, 2014.
Boeing’s first KC-46 tanker test aircraft, a 767-2C, conducts testing on its inaugural flight on December 28, 2014. Boeing

The latest budget impasse in Congress has civilian workers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord bracing for a possible government shutdown and the Air Force raising an alarm about a threat to a $51 billion tanker program Boeing is developing in the Puget Sound region.

JBLM’s civilian workforce of up to 15,000 people would suffer most if Congress fails to pass a budget by its Oct. 1 deadline, triggering a government shutdown for the second time in two years.

Last time, the base’s civilian employees had to take unpaid furlough days, a serious setback to some young families.

“We are talking about it,” said Matt Hines, a civilian worker at JBLM who’s also an officer for a chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees. “They have about two weeks to do something.”

By contrast, the Air Force’s plan to field new Boeing-made KC-46 refueling tankers would take a serious blow if Congress keeps the government running for a year at restricted levels based on 2015 spending. That kind of agreement, called a long-term continuing resolution, is an option that’s reported to be on the table among senior Republican lawmakers.

It also would slash the number of tankers Boeing must deliver in the next two years and effectively break the Air Force’s contract with the company, Air Force officials told lawmakers last week.

“It puts everything at risk,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who met with Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James last week. “From a military standpoint, we need to have tankers that are safe and reliable.”

The Obama administration’s original 2016 budget request included $2.4 billion to buy 12 KC-46 jets from Boeing.

Boeing’s contract, awarded in 2011, was the result of a hard-won fight against European rival EADS. Though expensive, it’s considered favorable to the Air Force because of hard caps on spending that the company agreed to during the decadelong competition. That deal has Boeing eating cost overruns, which Air Force officials estimate top $1.2 billion so far.

Breaking the contract could mean going back to the negotiating table with a weaker hand, Murray said.

“The real effect is the Air Force would break the contract and that means more expense to the Air Force and to taxpayers,” she said.

Members of Washington’s congressional delegation recently have warned that a government shutdown could fall later this year. Republicans and Democrats have been sparring over funding for Planned Parenthood, whether to lift the forced federal spending cuts known as sequestration and how to pay for the defense budget.

Another option that Congress could choose is passing a short-term deal to keep the government running after Oct. 1. Such an agreement would not harm civilians who work for the military or the plan to purchase new Air Force tankers. It would delay decisions that would impact both the military’s workforce and the Air Force’s procurement of new jets.

Six military and defense industry advocacy groups sent letters last week to leading lawmakers pleading for a comprehensive budget deal that would allow the Pentagon to create a dependable budget. The letter warned that the kind of fix that would restrict KC-46 production also would ripple out across the services and cut other programs.

“Please come together again in a bipartisan fashion and strike a multiyear budget deal that will create stability and efficiency in our spending,” said a letter signed by officials from lobbying groups for the Air Force, Navy, National Guard and three defense industry groups.

Boeing has been flying a test plane similar to the KC-46 at Boeing Field south of Seattle since May. Next Friday, Boeing is expected to fly an actual KC-46 for the first time, the Air Force announced last week.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson, who is managing the program, told reporters last week that full refueling tests should begin in January.

The KC-46 would replace the KC-135 refueling tanker. The Air Force has more than 400 of the older planes. Their average age is above 50 years old and they are growing increasingly expensive to maintain, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In 2013, military officials spent months readying for abrupt spending cuts that compelled them to furlough workers. This time, Murray said, “there is no preparation. I am very worried.”

Hines, a retired soldier, said the past few years have been tumultuous for him and others who work at JBLM.

“Every couple years, we go through this turmoil,” Hines said. “I have bills to pay like everyone else.”

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646