Let us all hope that three times really is the charm. Perhaps detecting insurmountable political odds, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has punted the doomed re-competing of the KC-X tanker contract to the next administration. And so the simple task of selecting an aircraft to replace the oldest Boeing KC-135 tankers starts over next year - again.
Maybe the reason it's so hard to select a tanker is because the differences between the two aircraft are so trivial. After all, what does it mean to call an aircraft a "better" tanker, when all the mission calls for is to fly in slow circles and, when called upon, dispense fuel through one of three tubes?
Or, perhaps, this strange behaviour is caused by the sense that the urgency of the requirement seems so lacking. In 2002, the US Air Force warned that the oldest KC-135Es were a breath away from the boneyard. Yet, six years later, a tanker replacement contract still isn't signed, and those trusty old KC-135Es still keep flying.
Clearly, the excuses must finally stop. The USAF needs a new tanker and, if you're a mobility commander, it doesn't really matter which one. But can the US acquisition process really get on with it? Will Gates' mandated "cooling-off" period finally allow a rational, fair and intelligent selection process? Will the politicians content themselves to a strictly observational role? Will either Boeing or Northrop Grumman abstain from a protest?
What is likely now is the opposite. This is when the real political manoeuvring, posturing and scheming begin. Gates' abrupt cease-fire will not stop the gamesmanship it will force it to a new level. By removing the prospect of an imminent contract decision, he's inadvertently removed all the rules and boundaries that had kept the worst of the political forces (barely) in check.
Over the next several weeks or months, expect to see both sides play hard ball tactics. There are other ways to win - and lose - contracts in Washington DC than through a competitive acquisition process (just ask the Northrop/EADS North America team).
So far, the behind-the-scenes contest between Boeing and Northrop has been a draw, and legislative support for both sides equally matched. More than four months remain before Inauguration Day. It is time for one or the other side to assert themselves, and make a final play before a new administration takes office on 20 January.
The process about to unfold may not look pretty, but, in the final analysis, is there any better method now to buy a tanker?