A Foreign Air Raid?

Aerospace workers in Everett, Wash., protest the Air Force contract awarded to a team that includes European Aeronautic Defence and Space, which is the parent company of Airbus and a rival to Boeing.
Aerospace workers in Everett, Wash., protest the Air Force contract awarded to a team that includes European Aeronautic Defence and Space, which is the parent company of Airbus and a rival to Boeing. (By Dan Delong -- Associated Press)

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By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Congressional leaders and union officials are calling on the Pentagon to reconsider its decision to award one of the biggest U.S. military aircraft contracts to a team that includes a European company, saying it puts U.S. jobs and security at risk.

The Air Force on Friday chose the team of Northrop Grumman, based in Los Angeles, and European Aeronautic Defence and Space, the parent company of Airbus and Boeing's rival in the commercial airline industry, to build 179 tanker aircraft. The $40 billion deal is the initial phase of a program to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of Boeing KC-135s.

The contract to supply the tankers had initially been awarded to Boeing but was withdrawn in 2004 over a procurement scandal that resulted in officials from Boeing and the Air Force being sent to prison. Boeing had been expected to win the subsequent contract again, according to many defense analysts, and the win by Northrop Grumman and EADS was widely hailed as a surprise. It gives the companies a leg up on orders to eventually replace all of the Air Force's tankers, work that could be worth as much as $100 billion.

Many members of Congress, especially from Washington state, Boeing's manufacturing base, responded with fury, saying that the Pentagon had steered a lucrative contract to a foreign company at a time when the U.S. economy is teetering on the brink of recession.

"We're going to fight this," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). "This is fatally flawed. We're going to start this whole thing over. People are outraged that we'd have one of the biggest procurements done by a foreign company."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said: "If the Air Force has decided to move our military capability overseas, Congress has an obligation to raise the questions and answer for our country's security, 'Are we going to lose our ability to build airplanes on American soil?' "

When news came of the contract award, Murray was visiting the 9,000 workers at Boeing's manufacturing plant in Everett, Wash., who were working on the tanker line. She said workers there were at first shocked and then angry.

"There was talk of 'How can tax dollars go to build planes overseas, particularly when our economy is hurting so much now?' " Murray said. Boeing is making tankers for Italy and Japan, but without the large U.S. order, it is likely to eventually end its 767 line as commercial sales for the plane decline.

Boeing officials said in a statement Friday that they would not decide whether to file a protest until they had been briefed by the Air Force. The Pentagon has said it will brief the winning and losing bidders next week, but congressional leaders are pushing for earlier and are also trying to get their own briefings.

Northrop Grumman and EADS argue that their tanker, the KC-45, is not a foreign aircraft, as Boeing and critics suggest. Northrop officials said 60 percent of the material and labor on the KC-45 will come from U.S. suppliers, which exceeds the Pentagon's requirement that at least 50 percent of it be made or bought in this country.

By assembling the plane at a plant in Mobile, Ala., they said, EADS will gain a foothold in the United States much as foreign automakers Honda and Toyota did.

The new KC-45 tanker is modeled on the Airbus A330, which EADS makes in Toulouse, France, and sells commercially. The plane's wings come from Britain. Germany makes the fuselage, and France builds part of it too. The tail is from Spain, and the General Electric engines are made in Cincinnati. The hose, drone and boom that will enable the tanker to refuel other planes in midair will be made in Bridgeport, W.Va. All of the parts will be shipped to Mobile for assembly.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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