Have nasty politics put the air tanker, and our military, at risk?
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Bonner also said that a President Obama would have an incredibly difficult time building the promised better relationship with Europe if his administration rejects a plane merely because one of the plane’s two main corporate builders is a primarily foreign — European — company.
“This is the man who stood before 1 million people in Berlin. He can’t go back to Europe with all the challenges in the world and begin to build his promised partnerships but then say, by the way, we’re not going to use products that have any European connections.”
Finally Bonner pronounced himself unconcerned about incoming National Security Advisor James Jones’ service until last month on Boeing’s board of directors: “General Jones wore the uniform of his country long before he wore a suit as a Boeing corporate board member…. And with all the criticism of Vice President Cheney’s past ties to Halliburton, does the Obama administration want to be accused” of showing favoritism of a similar nature in making such a big decision?
NEVERTHELESS, POLITICS does talk in Washington. Boeing’s unprecedented hardball campaign to reverse Northrop’s tanker award, with arm-twisting in Congress and a high-profile and nasty advertising campaign against its competitor, has made it clear that if Northrop again wins the competition when it is renewed this year, Boeing will continue to press every appeal it is allowed, no matter how long it takes. But an award to Boeing, after such a clear initial victory by Northrop, would almost certainly lead Northrop to take the battle to court — where it would probably have quite a strong case. And the longer all this goes on, the longer our servicemen will have to wait for a tanker to replace the half-century-old fleet. That would be unforgivable.
As 22 retired Air Force generals wrote in a letter last summer, “Delays in the tanker program will only serve to put the lives of crews flying these aging systems in greater jeopardy.”
The best answer — the one that solves all the politics, that delivers the planes the soonest, and that forces both companies to be at their best in order to keep the business — is the one I advocated on these pages back in July of 2007: “The best idea might not be to give the whole award to Northrop or to Boeing, but to split it up.”
The first set of 68 planes in the first contract of 179 planes will take years for either company to fill, and eventually the entire fleet of 510 planes must be replaced. Why not keep both companies on their toes, forcing them to do good work by splitting the first batch while keeping the competition open for subsequent batches?
In the summer of 2007, many thought that idea preposterous. But in late September of 2008, powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha of Pennsylvania told “Inside the Air Force” that (quoting the story’s lead paragraph) “The Air Force will have no choice but to split the… tanker award between rivals Boeing and Northrop Grumman-EADS if it wants to receive a new tanker anytime soon.”
The Pentagon darn well ought to listen to Murtha. If its splits the award before the end of February or even March, the first planes can begin being assembled by Northrop-EADS this autumn. But time’s a-wasting, and our military personnel are at increasing risk.
As Alabama Gov. Bob Riley told me last week, “We believe in competition. We believe in value. That’s what it means to be pro-American.”
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