Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Two huge problems plague our great country at the moment: messed up supply chains, and Russia’s militaristic foreign policy. Yet as unlikely as it seems, there are some who want to tie those two problems together through our own defense policy.
One issue bringing the dual problems of a broken supply chain and a militaristic Russia to the fore is the need for a new Air Force tanker.
It actually shouldn’t be a problem at all. The American-made KC-46 refueling tanker built for the U.S. Airforce is approved to refuel most military aircraft. It’s a reliable aircraft. The plane is already in service, and many more are on the way. The KC-46 is built here in the U.S. on a dedicated assembly line. It’s a proven solution while the Pentagon plans for a “next-generation” tanker that will be designed and built in the decade or so ahead.
But when the Pentagon announced it wants to buy another 150 or so “bridge tankers,” Aviation Week noted that defense contractor “Lockheed Martin promptly announced its entrant into the program, a modified Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport called the LMXT that the company says can provide more fuel at range than a KC-46.”
“Modified” is the keyword here, as the plane would actually be an Airbus model, designed and begun in Europe and then shipped here, via tangled and vulnerable supply lines, for final assembly in the U.S. Not only is Airbus a European consortium — it also relies on metal sourced in Russia.
Yes, even as Russian troops are bombing civilians in Ukraine, Airbus wants to keep buying titanium from the Russians. Whatever happened to sanctions?
As the rest of the world imposes sanctions on Russian energy, Russian money, and Russian minerals, “We don’t think sanctions on import [of titanium] will be appropriate,” Airbus Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury told reporters. “This will be a small impact on Russia, and would have large consequences on the rest of the countries and the industry. So, we think the no-sanction policy actually is the most meaningful one.”
That’s a head-scratcher. Sanctions are having consequences. Because of sanctions, Europeans are now learning the price of relying on Russia for many things – not just metals, but also the oil and gas they need to power their economies. While the U.S. has encouraged fracking and become, essentially, energy-independent in the last decade, European governments ban fracking, have shuttered nuclear power plants, and became addicted to Russian energy. But sanctions are the step the civilized world is taking to punish Russia for invading a democratic neighbor. Italy is among the European countries looking for energy from sources other than Russia.
Bloomberg notes that Airbus sources about half of the titanium it uses from Russia. The abundant metal is strong, light and versatile, and is necessary for building modern jets because it pairs well with their carbon frames. But it doesn’t have to come from Putin’s Russia.
“Titanium is the fourth most abundant structural metal on Earth, exceeded only by aluminum, iron, and magnesium,” the Encyclopedia Britannica explains. “Workable mineral deposits are dispersed worldwide and include sites in Australia, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Ukraine, Russia, Norway, Malaysia, and several other countries.”
Airbus could turn to any number of countries for the titanium it needs. Airbus just doesn’t want to.
American policymakers can settle all this right now. We don’t need competition in the “bridge tanker” area. Our government can order more American-made KC-46 tankers right now. What’s more: the Air Force knows this.
“As we look for requirements, look further out, the requirements start to look like a modified KC-46 more than they do a completely new design,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters last month. “So, we’re working our way through finalizing those requirements. Again, we’ll be doing due diligence market research analysis.”
That due diligence should include avoiding relying on Russian metals to build American defense platforms. The United States isn’t at war in Ukraine and isn’t at war with Russia. But we need to maintain independence and military readiness in case there is a war. Securing supply lines and avoiding funding Putin’s war machine should be priorities. Relying on Airbus and its Russian titanium would be the wrong approach.
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