Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Party's Over But The Swamp Gas Remains

By now,nearly everyone who's had the radio on knows that the Northrop-Grumman-EADS effort to capture the Air Force's future tanker contract has ended not with a bang but a whimper-a snivel, really. A brief recap, maestro.

Very well.

The air force's flying gas station has been the KC135, ever since the KC97 was retired. The KC135s as a generality are getting awfully tired. Deliveries started in 1956 and ended in 1965, and they're a derivative of the B707 civilian airframe-which owed more than a little to the B47 in the picture nuzzling up to a KC97.

Although a number of KC10s were delivered, they weren't a replacement for the kind of work that the KC135 did and as a result a new tanker was called for. Back a few years ago, that looked like the selection was going to be an aerial refueling version of the civilian Boeing 767 which would be leased to the military.

All those grand plans collapsed over the small matter of corruption in high places-in a word, at Boeing headquarters. There were the mandatory beheadings and the occasional prison sentence to serve as an admonition to miscreants but the take home was the stink was so bad the contract was cancelled.

But the need remained.

A new RFP was drawn up for what the air force called the KC-X program and the folks at Northrop Grumman teamed up with EADS to offer a tankerized version of the Airbus A330, a considerably larger aircraft than the 767.

The advantage to the government, it was said, was greater flexibility. In order to satisfy the nativists and flag wavers, it was alleged that a plant would be built to manufacture these aircraft in Mobile, Alabama so that they could be said to be 110 per cent Amurricun.

We here at the Dougloid Towers, of course, never believed that this would happen. Any such 'manufacturing plant' would be little more than a glorified completion center. Green aircraft ferried from the Toulouse Airbus plant would be received, painted and equipped with the requisite aerial refueling equipment and such avionics as the air force did not want the Frenchies to see.

Any resemblance to actual aircraft manufacturing would be purely cosmetic.

The Northrop/Grumman/EADS offering won the competition, but an appeal by Boeing succeeded in sending the entire mess back for regrooving.

When the revised RFP came out recently, Northrop/Grumman/EADS decided to take its dollies and dishes and go home, alleging that the contract had been written with Boeing in mind, and that their entrant could not compete on that basis.

It's probably true, too. Recasting the RFP with an eye toward mission utility demanded it. Granted the Airbus offering would have more cargo space and accommodations for passengers and the like, but that's not really what is needed or wanted when you already have enough in the way of freight haulers anyway-as the air force does.

And of course, there's the issue of cost and escalation. Anyone buying anything from Airbus these days pretty well knows that the sticker price is treated as a point of departure for further negotiations rather than a firm statement of "Yes. This is what it costs and this is what you will pay the cashier. Thank you."

I'm quite sure that that thought has occurred to the Germans as they get ready to take a shower-a bath, really- on the A400M program.

On the other hand, the Germans always wanted to be wearing the financial pants in Europe. Truth be told, they've always sort of had that ambition if the last century was any indication. Many and varied were the pitches for a European economic zone with-you guessed it-Berlin as the center of it all. They came right out and said so between the pages of Signal, which was Germany's version of Yank magazine. The footsloggers on the Eastern front probably didn't pay too much attention to all that-survival and all that, y'know-but the idea's been kicking around Berlin for a while now.

Well. You can't complain too much about getting what you wished for. But nevermind.

At the present, there are dark mutterings in Europe of protectionism and unfair lobbying advantage in Washington, and much of this swamp gas is emanating from-you guessed it-Airbus 'spokespeople'.

The grousing continues unabated, viz: 'a scandalous, unacceptable act', 'regrettable' and so on.

This hypocrisy has been ably documented by the fine folks at Der Spiegel, which also notes that Europe has been more or less guilty of the same things in its defense contracting-in particular, in the field of military aircraft procurement, most notably the A400M debacle.

Fancy that.


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