A dogfight between leading airplane makers and their political wingmen is swirling over the capital these days, and it has already drawn in President Carter, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. and a number of top Pentagon officials.
At stake are billions of dollars in contracts to provide the Navy and Marine Corps with new fighter and attack planes for the 1980s. The decision is Carter's, and the question facing him as he weighs the conflicting claims and proposals is whom to believe.
The Pentagon itself is in disarray on the question, with Navy leaders and Defense Secretary Harold Brown taking contary positions.
For the companies, the competition to win ranges all the way from massive design changes in one of the aircraft to cinsulting with Carter confidant Bert Lance to angling to get invited to a White House dinner for the shah of Iran.
An engine change is illustrative.
The struggling Vought Corp, sees its very survival as a prime defense contractor at stake in the competition. Its A-7 attack plane currently is powered by a single Allison (General Motors) jet. But its arch-rival Northrop Corps F-18, uses General Electric jets which are built in Lynn, Mass in Speaker O'Neill's backyard.
Vought has already designed a new version of its A-7 calling for two GE jets instead of the single Allison.
Vought officials confirmed that their president, Paul Thayer, met with O'Neill in Washington last week to outline his new engine plan for the A-7, O'Neill, sources said, agreed he might be able "to take the pressure off" if the A-7 could safeguard the economic future of the Massachusetts engine plant as well as the F-18 could.
O'Neill reportedly told Thayer he had recently talked to Defense Secretary Brown about the F-18. Brown, himself, shortly after becoming Secretary of Defense, recommended that no more A-7 attack planes be purchased.
Industry sources said that the Speaker made no commitment to Thayer concerning the twin-engined A-7, but advised the aerospace executive to keep talking with General Electric about that possibility. A spokesman for O'Neill told The Washington Post yesterday that the Speaker considered the descriptions of his meeting with Thayer "as a lot of h-s."
White House staffers are studying a new report on how the political backlash from killing the F-13 and sticking with the A-7 could be controlled.
The report was submitted by Paul Porter, a Boston management consultant with White House connections as a result of raising money for Carter's presidential campaign.
The report, submitted to the White House last week with the backing of a group of retired and active-duty Navy officers and civilians, contends the F-33 no longer promises to be the bargain-basement plane former Deputy Defense Secretary William P. Clements had in mind when he forced it on the Navy.
McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis and Northrop Corp. of Los Angeles are the aerospace team building the fighter and attack versions of that plane, the F-18. The firms deny their plane is running into cost problems as they battle to save it from cancellation or stretchout in the fiscal 1979 defense budget now in the final stages of completion.
"The Navy Aircraft Decision" unofficial paper sent to the White House not only argues for the F-18's cancellation on cost and performance grounds but also provides an insight into the political considerations engulfing the budget decisions.
Putting General Electric engines in the A-7, states the report, would satisfy the "Northeast interest," meaning House Speaker O'Neill and Massachusetts Sens. Edward W. Brooke (R) and Edward M. Kenndy (D).
One official involved in the airplane struggle said those three Massachusetts politicians fighting for the F-18 have become known as "the TET offensive," an acronym for Tip (O'Neill), Ed (Brooke) and Ted (Kennedy).
Buying another plane, the AV-8B advanced Harrier, for the Marine Corps, the report continues, would offset the "Midwest" political problems, meaning the loss to McDonnell Douglas if the F-18 were cancelled. McDonnell Douglas would build one Marines' Harrier under license from Britain, which designed it.
The political problems that would erupt from the California Congressional delegation if Northrop of Los Angeles lost its Navy F-18 contract apparently were not considered overriding even though California lost B-1 bomber jobs when Carter canceled the Rockwell International [WORD ILLEGIBLE] this summer.
Northrop is headed by Thomas Jones, who pleaded guilty to make illegal contributions to the 1972 election campaign of President Nixon.
But Jones himself is deeply involved in this dogfight between airplane companies vying for Navy dollars. Despite his admitted illegal support of Nixon, Jones was invited to Carter's White House dinner for the shah of Iran on Nov. 15.
White House officials told the Washington Post that their original invitation list for the shah's dinner included only one aerospace executive, Reginald H. Jones, chairman of the General Electric Co., who was invited at the shah's request.
However, Northrop's Jones prevailed upon Carter confidant Lance to get him invited to the White House dinner, industry sources said. Once word of Jones' invitation leaked out, rival aerospace executives complained that they should be invited, too, "to neutralize Jones," as one source expressed it.
A Northrop spokesman said yesterday that Jones has spoken with Lance about defense budgeting procedures several times, both while Lance headed the White House office of Management and Budget and since then. But Jones did not ask Lance to put him on the invitation list for the shah's dinner, a Northrop spokesman said. He added that Northrop has had business relations with Iran for the last 12 years.
Thayer has also met a number of times with Lance on airplane issues, Vought officials confirmed to The Post.
The White House publicly-released guest list for the shah's dinner confirms that not only were Reginald Jones and Thomas Jones invited but David S. Lewis, chairman of General Dynamics, as well.
General Dynamics builds the F-16 light fighter and views the F-18 as its most direct competitor for sales in this country and overseas. If, however, the F-18 program were canceled, the F-16 would stand to gain much more of the world marker.
Grumman Aerospace Corp., builder of the heavier and more expensive F-14 fighter, also is competing for Navy and Iranian dollars. The White House protocol office, in the midst of the flap over the invitation to Northrop's Jones, decided to invite Gramman's overseas marketing executive, Thomas Kane, to the musicale following the dinner for the shah - but not to the dinner itself.
Until last week, Navy Secretary W. Graham Claytor seemed to be losing his fight to scrap or delay the F-18 and buy instead a mix of F-14 fighters and A-7 attack planes for the Navy and the advanced Harrier for the Marines.
But the prospect of giving the A-7 more political and combat thrust by equipping it with two General Electric engines have sent Navy and White House budget officers back to reshaping their proposals to Carter and Defense Secretary Brown.
Backers argue that modernizing the A-7 by adding new engines could keep Carter from eating his past criticism of the plane.
AT his May 12 news conference Carter said the A-7 is a plane that is obsolescent at best. There is no need in my opinion for a continued purchase of that plane."