Madame President, first of all let me thank the Senator from North Dakota, the Budget Committee chair, for his strong remarks following the comments from the Senator from Arizona on the lease provisions of the 767 that are in the defense bill before us.
Madame President, I am extremely concerned for our country, for our military, and of course for my own state.
Madame President, in my state, we have Fairchild Air Force Base, which is home to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. There are approximately 60 air refueling tankers that are based outside of Spokane, Washington. I've been to Fairchild. I've visited personally with the families. I know the difficult missions these crews handle for each one of us everyday. And I have the utmost respect for the work they do. I should also mention that in September, some of these crews and these tankers were deployed in our military effort.
So when the Air Force tells me (and they have told us) and tells Congress (and they have told Congress) that replacing the old KC 135 tankers is critical I know it's important. And my constituents know it's important.
Madame President, my state is home to the Boeing Company, which would build the tanker replacements. My friend from Arizona suggests that the Senate should reject this proposal simply because it would benefit the manufacturer of these planes. Well, that argument ignores the facts.
These tankers are the oldest planes in our fleet. They cost a fortune to maintain, and they're often down for repairs. Since September 11th, we rely on them much more than before.
Madame President, we are going to have to replace these aging tankers anyway. And if we do it now, we will save at least $ 5.9 billion in maintenance and upgrades on these antiquated tankers.
Madame President this is something the Air Force has been concerned about for years. It is clear that we need to take immediate action to upgrade our overburdened tanker fleet. But don't take my word for it.
Listen to what the Secretary of the Air Force James Roche wrote to me:
"The KC-135 fleet is the backbone of our Nation's Global Reach. But with an average age of over 41 years, coupled with the increasing expense required to maintain them, it is readily apparent that we must start replacing these critical assets. I strong endorse beginning to upgrade this critical warfighting capability with new Boeing 767 tanker aircraft."
That, Madame President, is from the Air Force Secretary, James Roche.
Now will this help the people of my state? Absolutely. Because of the layoffs at Boeing since September 11th and the slow-down of our economy, my state now has the highest unemployment of any state in the nation. The people I represent are hurting, and I'm going to do everything I can to help them.
But this is not just about my state. Every state involved in aircraft production will benefit. Even my friend from Arizona's home state would stand to gain if this program moves forward. It's in our national interest to keep our only commercial aircraft manufacturer healthy in tough times -- to keep that capacity and to keep that skill set.
Madame President, the Air Force has identified this as a critical need. Our ability to project force, to protect our shores, and to pursue terrorists in Afghanistan and around the world, depends on our fighter aircraft and bombers being able to stay in the air for long periods of time. And that is only possible through in-flight refueling.
We Rely on Refueling Tankers
Madame President, right now in the Afghanistan campaign we rely on air refueling tankers known as KC 135s. In fact, since September 11th, our use of these tankers is up significantly. We rely on these tankers to refuel our fighters over Afghanistan. We rely on them to refuel our B-2 and B-52 bombers on long range missions. We rely on them to refuel the planes that move our troops to the region. And right now in the skies over this Capitol building and cities across America we are relying on them to refuel the planes that are flying combat air patrols for homeland security.
The Existing Tankers are Old and Require Costly Maintenance and Upgrades
And Madame President, there are very real problems with our existing fleet of tankers.
They are old. The K-135s were first delivered to the Air Force in 1957. On average, they are 41 years old and we're paying for it. They've been around longer than most of the people who are flying them.
These tankers are expensive to maintain. A 41- year-old aircraft runs on parts that are not commercially-available. Corrosion is also a significant problem. In fact, KC-135s spend about 400 days in major depot maintenance every 5 years. Madame President, this is an essential program.
We will save $5.9 billion in upgrade and maintenance costs. By moving forward with this program now, we can save at least $ 5.9 billion, and these numbers Madame President, come not from me but from the U.S. Air Force.
This is a long-standing need, and it's made even more urgent by 9-11. I want to be clear, this is a serious need that was identified by the U.S. Air Force long before September 11th. This isn't a new idea. But given the ongoing war and the new challenges we face with Homeland Security, it's clear we need to speed up the procurement process because we're relying on these planes so much more now after September 11th.
Madame President, we have worked hard for these provisions. I want to commend the Senator from Alaska, the Senator from Hawaii who are managing this bill. They have worked long and hard hours to come together with an agreement on a critical replacement of these KC 135 with the new tankers. And I want to thank Senator Conrad and Senator Domenici, the Chair and Ranking Member of our Budget Committee, who have worked long and hard on this. And I want to recognize my colleague from Washington state, Senator Cantwell, who too has spent many hours sitting in senators' offices explaining to them the need both from the Air Force and from our home state.
This is a critical program. It is the right way to do it. We have worked out a consensus among everyone that moves this program forward. And Madame President, most importantly, it is for the men and women who serve us in the Air Force.
When I go home when this session is over and I go to one of our Air Force bases in my home state of Washington, I want to be able to look in the eyes of those young men and women who we are sending a continent away to defend and protect all of us and say we have done everything we can to make sure they are safe when they are in the air. That's what this provision does.
Madame President, when the Senator from Arizona offers his amendment, I hope my colleagues remember the men and women who are serving this country.