Saturday, March 01, 2008

Air Force Snubs Boeing, Shows Maturity

Amazingly, USAF actually awarded its huge ($40 bn) air tanker contract to the Northrop/EADS consortium. According to the Economist, the best man won then. Except that McCain might actually take a beating according to the above analysis - for standing up for US taxpayers:

Republican Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) was an early and fierce critic of Boeing's lease scheme. McCain, who is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested as recently as December that the current fleet might have a longer life than the Air Force claims.

For McCain the decision is a mixed blessing. He has taken on defense contractors in the U.S. Senate and was instrumental in ending Boeing's lock on the tanker business during investigatory hearings in 2003. "He's going to have to tout this right away as a thing he handled for the benefit of American taxpayers," says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "The Democrats are going to jump all over this as an example of how he helped move jobs overseas." The decision also could hurt McCain in Washington, Oregon, Texas, and Kansas, all of which have a heavy Boeing presence.

That must really hurt at Boeing - first losing out to Lockheed on the JSF, then to Sikorsky and Lockheed on the new search-and-rescue helicopter, and then now, the tanker deal to Northrop/EADS.

But instead of feeling sorry for a private company (even covered in patriotic paint) this decision should be celebrated as an expression of the strength of American democracy - and the correlate soundness (in this case) of the resulting administrative system. It must have taken guts to choose what is essentially a European (technology) solution. Because now the USAF top brass has to listen to all the coming unverifiable squabble about 'longterm strategic security' as expressed through 'a sound national defense industry'.

Problem for that argument is: Tankers are not hitech. Low-end aerospace capabilities have become commoditized. That is why the civilian world has a thing called no-frills airlines which compete on shaving costs such as coffee and and roll rather than new engines or tail fin designs.

Even so: Following the Druyun scandal, in political terms, the only recommended way forward for USAF was to stick to a fair and open competition based on merit. Kudos for doing so.

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