Friday, February 29, 2008

The Once and Future Tanker

A project to rival the Eurofighter Taifun in controversy has to be the USAF's quest for a new aerial tanker, the KC-X, to replace its fleet of over 500 Boeing KC-135E/R tankers that are still in service along with the newer KC-10s.

After the fiasco in 2003 that resulted in one DoD procurement official going to jail and Boeing losing its winning bid, it seems the USAF has finally made a decision as to who will win: Boeing or Northrop-Grumman/EADS. The USAF is going with the Northrop-Grumman/EADS plane to be the KC-45A

Initial contract will be for $35billion and could possibly lead to follow on contracts totalling $100billion. The planes will originally be built in Toulouse France but modifications and final work will be done in Mobile, Ala which expects to add thousands of jobs.

Naturally members of Congress from Kansas and Washington are up in arms over this decision since it means Boeing's Seattle nor Wichita plant will be producing KC-767s. So now we have the likes of Sen. Patty [Osama built schools in Afghanistan] Murray wanting to launch a full blown investigation of why the contract was not awarded to Boeing.

Of course the Air Force will have some hurdles to surmount in selling this idea to Congress. We can't forget how much the A.380 was delayed because of poor wiring which resulted in companies cancelling their contracts for the planes which in turn caused Airbus, part of EADS, to lose serious money. Another thing auditors better be looking for is EADS/Airbus trying to move costs from their A.400 and Eurofighter projects to this billion dollar golden calf from the US. So even without the partisan politics of politicians who hate military spending unless it benefits them, this is going to be a hard sell.

Boeing though may wish its supporters in Congress would not be so vocal since there are two follow-on tanker contracts still to be let and they could win one or both of them. But if they raise too much fuss or members of Congress do, it could sour things. This loss might also be the impetus for Boeing to field a KC-787 since it seems that was the Air Force's big criteria for selecting the KC-45A over the Boeing KC-767. And before I forget, Boeing has another reason not to annoy its primary buyer, as the RAF readies to accept its sixth C-17 Globemaster III and only 19 more planes are on the Air Force order books, representatives like Jack Murtha are pushing for the purchase of 14 more this year and 15 more the following year. This will give the USAF 219 C-17s instead of the 190 now programmed for and will allow Boeing to keep its Long Beach California plant open until 2011.

So the Tanker Wars are far from over. Fasten your seat-belts and make sure your tray is in the upright position.

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