US KC-X TANKER AWARD – THIRD TIME LUCKY OR A DRAW?
By Howard Wheeldon
09 Jul 10. Ten years after the original Boeing bid was made to replace the first tranche of elderly USAF KC-135 aircraft with new leased 767 tankers a third and hopefully final deadline for this long running and politically contentious program is about to be reached. As the final bids from EADS and Boeing for the 179 aircraft first phase of the KC-X tanker program are resubmitted we debate here whether it should be third time lucky for either Boeing or EADS or whether the better solution to this politically contentious award would be to split it between the two.
In what will surely be the largest US based defense competition to be awarded over the next twenty years both EADS and Boeing are once again going head to head with each other to win what many observers feel has degenerated into a competition based predominantly on political and protectionist consideration rather than the aircraft that might be best placed for the mission. Between the previous award to the EADS/Northrop Grumman combination and its subsequent cancellation having lost its original partner for now EADS decided that rather than have a US partner on board at this stage that it would to go it alone. I suggest here that should EADS win it would fairly quickly announce the name of a US partner. Nevertheless, awarded to one or other of Boeing or Airbus as in the previously cancelled awards or maybe even splitting the new program award between the two competing aircraft makers be in no doubt that the KC-X program is vast and thus hugely important to jobs and the US economy as well. Worth $35bn the first phase of the US tanker aircraft competition is likely to be phased over 15 years.
Other than to enclose previously written copy on the KC-X tanker competition above I do not propose here and now to go into the sad history of two previous awards again although I will remind that KC-X has already been won and lost by both Boeing and EADS. In the case of the latter I am quite clear in my own mind that politics and protectionism was to subsequently deal a very ugly hand to EADS. Nevertheless, we move on and with its near 9,000 page bid submitted yesterday again based on the KC-45 tanker variant of the A330-200 aircraft it seems to me that apart from lobbying support EADS can now do little more than play the extended waiting game. Meanwhile we assume that Boeing will also imminently submit its bid based on the revised RFP and that as before, this will be based on its well heeled KC-767 tanker aircraft variant.
What USAF requires is the best aircraft for the mission. It is not for me to speculate which aircraft that is other than to perhaps say that both aircraft are more than fit for purpose. Will USAF get what they need? Hopefully they will although not without a fight! Could protectionism play a hand in this award process as it no doubt did before? Of course it will – no US government defense contract award today and that has the potential to create new or maybe retain large numbers of existing jobs can ever be without public and political consideration and angst related to where those jobs and investment might be placed and in which state. If it won EADS still plans to build the new tanker aircraft in Alabama creating thousands of new jobs and ultimately we also believe that the company would plan to build commercial planes there too. That of course is not something that Boeing would care to hear but from a jobs aspect it could be an important argument in the future. Even so, while calling on others to ensure that through this global economic and confidence crisis protectionist issues should never be allowed to take hold many will doubt that protectionism issues in the US might not yet again mar the third attempt at securing a solution for USAF. I hope not and that at the very least KC-X is awarded on a level playing field basis.
I am not here going to go into the technical