The alert reader has no doubt heard and read stories about the US Air Force’s selection of the next air refueling aircraft, or “Tanker.” In what to many was a surprise move, the Air Force selected the Northrup Grumman/AEDS (Airbus) proposal rather than the Boeing proposal. And, not surprisingly, Boeing has objected to losing what had been a “lock” for them for over 50 years.1 What is surprising, however, are the arguments we are beginning to hear.
One would expect to read that Boeing lost the contract despite being the better aircraft. That, somehow, the AF overlooked key performance characteristics of the aircraft. That, perhaps, politics came in to play to select an inferior product. But no.
According to the NYT, in the article titled “In Tanker Bid, It Was Boeing vs. Bold Ideas” from March 10th, Boeing (and its supporters in Congress) are instead making the nationalistic arguments about job loss and a loss of a national asset.
The company and its allies in Washington have already made a number of arguments. Among them are that too many American jobs are being lost overseas, and that sensitive military contracts should not be in the hands of a foreign company.
The debate about the impact on American jobs is a murky one, because large manufacturing projects typically involve operations in many parts of the world, regardless of which company has a contract.
Yes, the debate is murky, but not simply because of the potential loss of American jobs. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, that Northrup-Grumman is an American company and that reports are the aircraft will have final assembly in the US making this a Washington State job loss, not a US one.) This comes down, unfortunately, to politics over policy.
As the NYT also writes
On Capitol Hill, the blow to Boeing has set off a protectionist furor among many lawmakers. And on the campaign trail, the Democratic candidates for president, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, suggest that the Boeing loss reflects other Bush administration policies that have resulted in jobs moving offshore.
But the hot rhetoric could sound overly nationalistic, and even hypocritical, once the real implications for jobs and national security become clear. Boeing, for example, would have made many of its own tanker parts overseas, and some experts say that claims of job losses to a foreign company seem exaggerated.
For now, though, the pro-Boeing, pro-America talk is showing no signs of letting up.
“We really have to wake up the country,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington State, where Boeing is a significant employer. “We are at risk of losing a major part of our aerospace industry to the Europeans forever.”
Representative Todd Tiahrt, Republican of Kansas, said: “It’s outsourcing our national security. An American tanker should be built by an American company with American workers.” Boeing would have done some of its tanker assembly in Kansas.
So we have National Democrats on the stage arguing that this is another “Bush screw-up.” And yet this is the same set of politicians who strongly argue we are fighting a war we shouldn’t have started, with troops ill-equipped to meet this challenges of the new battlefield. Are they blind to the fact that it is just this sort of politics that has led to the failures to properly equip our troops? Oversight of weapons system acquisitions that places a priority on location of sub-assembly manufacture over capability. (The B-1B aircraft had parts manufactured in nearly all of the 435 Congressional districts.) As far back ask 1990 researchers and critics have argued that politicians have focused more on maintaining their districts at the expense of national interest. According to Kennth Mayer, in his 1993 Public Administration Review article entitled “Policy Disputes as a Source of Administrative Controls: Congressional Micromanagement of the Department of Defense”
Critics argue that these interventions result in inefficiency because they are not based on any “rational” conception of overall defense strategy. Members are accused of examining the defense budget “in terms of how it promotes their own electoral prospects” instead of on the basis of national interest (Lindsay 1990, p. 7). Members are accused of attacking the Pentagon to create publicity, or even to achieve influence within Congress. DoD argues that the pork barrel incentive drives many congressional interventions, as members use their power over the budget to deliver programs and contracts to constituents (OSD, 1990, p. 19). Critics claim that the result is a defense budget choked with regulations and bloated with pork.
So why bring this up? Because at this point in time, with our nation at war, politicians on both sides of the aisle are positioning for their constituents rather than for the security of our nation. There are significant questions that could be asked, and perhaps should be asked. Questions that would cut to the heart of issue of the adequacy of the aircraft to meet our military’s requirements. But these seem to get lost in the rush to score points with the electorate.
Perhaps Congress would best serve the nation if they asked these questions:
- What criteria did you use when evaluating one aircraft design over the other?
- What impact will the larger aircraft (a “widebody” by designation) have on ramp space?
- Will their be a reduction in “MOG” (or, “Maximum on Ground” ) due to the larger aircraft size?
- Does a reduced MOG reduce the numbers of combat and airlift aircraft that can be co-located?
- Will this aircraft type/size necessitate a change in the infra-structure to support it? (fueling stanchions, parking plans, hangars and doors, etc?)
These questions are external to the capabilities of the aircraft itself, but address the important aspects of total operating costs, and impact on mission operations.
1 Boeing manufactured the veteran KC-135 aircraft (a 707 variant.) That aircraft first production aircraft saw service in 1957 and KC-135s are still flying today. The new tanker is intended to replace this aging airframe.
*As many of you know, part of my “history” includes working on weapon systems’ acquisitions. I worked