Governments and some government contractors tend to prepare to “fight the last war” instead of future conflicts. It’s difficult for the machinery of government to pivot and look to the future, when the instinct of procurement is to replace what you just lost. Some defense contractors make the problem worse by mirroring the same mentality.
For example, after World War I innovative thinkers wanted the United States to build its airpower, but military leaders were focused on building battleships instead. When the next war came, the battleships were useless. Many were sunk at the outset, and the rest were sitting ducks against enemy planes. Military aviation made all the difference.
History offers many similar examples. The world often changes before military leaders can adjust. And that’s essentially what explains the behavior of the European weapons-maker Airbus right now: They are fighting the last war on two fronts.
The first front is in Europe. The actual war there is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops are committing atrocities, shelling civilians, and targeting hospitals, theaters, and retirement homes. The United States and our NATO allies are on alert but they aren’t sending any troops to Ukraine. Instead, we are putting pressure on Russia by applying sanctions aimed at crushing the country’s economy.
European aircraft manufacturer Airbus opposes this policy at a time when it is seeking contracts to provide military hardware to the U.S. Air Force.
“Sanctions on Russian titanium would hardly harm Russia, because they only account for a small part of export revenues there. But they would massively damage the entire aerospace industry across Europe,” a company spokesperson told Business Insider. Airbus sources half of its titanium, a key metal in making modern planes, from Russia.
The idea that “what’s good for Airbus is good for Europe” seems like a slogan from the last war. The slogan for this war is that people on the continent may suffer, but they are going to do their part to punish Russian aggression.
Airbus, apparently, just wants to protect its bottom line and continue using a vulnerable supply chain.
The second front is here in the United States.
Years ago, the Air Force announced plans to phase out its existing fleet of KC-10 and KC-135 refueling tankers. It selected the KC-46 Pegasus tanker to take its place. As with any new military platform, there have been delays and difficulties. But the Pegasus is now in the air already serving other planes.
“The Air Force’s newest tanker has been approved to conduct the majority of its primary mission sets of airlift, air refueling, and aeromedical evacuation since March of 2021,” wrote Staff Sergeant Nathan Eckert of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs. “It can now execute limited versions of these missions and refuel 85 percent of all Joint Force aircraft.”
Earlier this year, the secretary of the Air Force stated the obvious when he noted that the future of the tanker program has “started to look like a modified KC-46 more than they do a completely new design.” But Airbus wants to reopen the whole competition.
In January the company and its American partner announced it would like to build a version of its A330 tanker and sell it to the U.S. military. The planes would be assembled in the United States but would be designed and have parts shipped from Europe.
It all seems like a waste of time and money. Even if the Air Force agreed to buy some of the Airbus planes, they would have to be cleared for service, which would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars (an investment that’s already been made in the Pegasus). By the time the plane is approved, it would be time to design a new tanker.
Time marches on and the military must always be looking ahead, preparing for the current war and wars to come. The Pentagon has been doing just that. Airbus wants to fight a rearguard action against the Pegasus, which is already flying in Europe. The 22nd Air Refueling Wing may eventually use those Pegasus aircraft in combat there, although we hope it won’t need to.
This war and the wars of the future require American-made planes and a secure supply chain, not rehashing a pointless fight that’s been over for years.