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Have nasty politics put the air tanker, and our military, at risk?
A curious thing, and some would say a suspicious one, happened on the morning of September 10, 2008. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Members representing districts where the Boeing Company had a heavy presence began cheering and celebrating. But Members representing districts with closer ties to the Northrop Grumman company had no idea what was going on.
Eventually the news came out: Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and other Pentagon officials had called interested Members to tell them the Pentagon had decided to completely cancel the existing competition between Boeing and Northrop (along with the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company North America, or EADS) for a desperately needed new Air Force refueling tanker. Northrop had won the competition until a semi-successful Boeing protest and was widely expected to win it again. But it seemed that all the Boeing-friendly Members got the cancellation news first — news that, translated, meant they could start over from scratch a competition they had thoroughly lost.
That very night, at a gala to celebrate the next day’s scheduled dedication of the Pentagon Memorial (in remembrance of 9/11), England and other top Pentagon brass sat as guests at the table sponsored by Boeing.
Boeing has long had an incredibly cozy relationship with the Pentagon — sometimes too cozy. In 2001, the Air Force had awarded a lease/buy tanker contract to Boeing, but it was canceled after a John McCain-led investigation sent several Boeing and Pentagon officials to jail for corruption relating to the award.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates already owns a home in Big Lake, Washington, 55 miles North of Seattle, Boeing’s original headquarters and still one of its biggest manufacturing sites. His children also have extensive Seattle ties. Incoming National Security Advisor James Jones was a member of Boeing’s board until December 15 of 2008. Boeing’s corporate headquarters is now in Chicago, political home of incoming President Barack Obama and his chosen chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who was one of the most angrily outspoken congressmen when Northrop was announced as the competition winner last Feb. 29.
Most experts in the outside trade press had already written by then that Northrop had the better plane, and subsequent testimony showed that Northrop also had offered to build the first 68 planes in this 179-plane contract for $2.9 billion less than Boeing would have charged. Yet when Boeing protested on more than 100 counts, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis upheld just eight of the more minor procedural (not substantive) complaints — and even there, some observers smelled a rat. One of the unions with significant Boeing membership — but not Northrop membership — is the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. The IFPTE also has members who work for GAO, some of whom actually worked on the tanker protest analysis.
And in Congress, Boeing seems to have more clout — or at least a far more impassioned group of Members as advocates, ones far more willing to use open threats and other hardball tactics. Truth be told, their intensity on the subject in many cases borders on the bizarre. Witness the scene at one of the national political conventions this summer where a columnist was chatting very amiably on a number of topics with a congressman who always had been most friendly — and then, when the columnist asked in passing if there were any news on the tanker contract, the congressman’s demeanor changed markedly. Raising his voice, jabbing his finger for emphasis, suddenly red-faced, the congressman erupted into an absolute rant about how the award for Northrop/EADS would be giving jobs to Europeans (because of the EADS component of it) instead of Americans.
NEVER MIND THAT NORTHROP also is responsible for a host of jobs in that congressman’s own district. Never mind that nearly a third of Boeing’s proposed plane would feature parts built overseas, and that overall Boeing is outsourcing more and more jobs abroad, including breaking ground for a $21 million expansion for a plant in China last November while boasting of having bought more than $1.5 billion of aviation hardware from China in the past two decades and promising to double that in coming years. Boeing also is a partner in the Moscow (Russia) design center, with 2,000 employees there.
And never mind that independent (not Northrop-sponsored) analyses show that if Northrop gets the tanker it will create some 48,000 new direct and indirect jobs in the United States — some 4,000 more than the Boeing version — with 230 suppliers based in all 50 states. The Northrop plane itself would be assembled in a new, labor-intensive plant in Mobile, Alabama, with crucial, satellite economic boosts throughout the Gulf Coast from Louisiana into Florida.
Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine put it in perspective: “The Gulf Coast has been devastated by four major hurricanes [just beginning with Katrina; the year before Katrina saw four storms inflict major damage on the eastern Gulf Coast] and is trying to rebuild our economy. If Obama and his administration want to make a statement about rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and get the best plane for the job… this is the way to go to reward American ingenuity and American resolve on the Gulf Coast.”
Nodine has helped secure resolutions of support for the Northrop bid from city councils in virtually every coastal town from New Orleans to Melbourne, Florida.
U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner of Mobile adds a broader perspective, noting, as have many others, that the current tanker fleet is five decades old and becoming more and more dangerous to fly, with fewer and fewer of the planes available for use at any one time.
“Do we no longer need to project strength and purpose around the world?” he asked. “All over the world there are hot spots that could require American leadership at a moment’s notice.… For years, everybody in Congress and the Air Force has agreed this is the nation’s Number One military acquisition priority… that the tanker is the glue that keeps everything else [involving the ability to “project force”] together. We have to get it right sooner rather than later.”
That last point is important: It is generally acknowledged that, whatever the other merits of the two competing planes, the Northrop plane will be ready to come off the assembly line far sooner than the Boeing one.
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