WASHINGTON This is what the U.S. Air Force gets for trying to run an above-board procurement contest.
Boeing Co., which has supplied the Air Force with refueling tankers since Gen. Curtis LeMay hung up his goggles, is protesting the Air Force's Feb. 29 award of a $35 billion contract for a new fleet of tankers to hated rival Airbus. Boeing and its pals on Capitol Hill see Airbus hiding behind the skirts of domestic rival Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., or EADS, the main subcontractor and Airbus' parent.
Unable the win on merit, the sore loser immediately moved to paint Airbus and EADS as America's public enemy No. 1.
With U.S. manufacturing jobs going the way of cheap gas, Boeing has mounted a politically potent counteroffensive, even though it has since emerged that its proposal for modifying its 767 jetliner--as a way to keep its 767 assembly line humming--failed to meet nearly all major Air Force requirements.
The arguments of howling lawmakers from Washington state, where the Boeing tanker would have been built, are severely undercut by the fact that this has been one of the most corrupt military procurements in decades. As one who patrolled the inner rings of the Pentagon for years as a military reporter, believe me, this is no small feat.
The face of this sad spectacle is the former No. 2 acquisition executive in the Air Force, a woman named Darleen Druyun. She went to the slammer earlier in the decade for steering Air Force contracts to Boeing, including an unsuccessful attempt to deliver the tanker deal, in exchange for future employment for herself, her daughter and her son-in-law.
The entire mess brings to mind a similar Pentagon procurement imbroglio in the 1980s when then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tried to cancel a Navy fighter program. That's right folks, Dick Cheney has met a weapon program he didn't love. The Navy and its prime contractor raised hell, and were eventually compensated for their loss.
No such tidy ending is likely in the tanker mess, and no one involved has clean hands. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the North American arm of EADS has made $304,000 in campaign contributions and spent $2.8 million on lobbying since 2004.
More proof that weapon programs are more frequently about jobs than military modernization.
Northrop Grumman and its overseas partners won the tanker contract about as fairly as is possible in a deeply flawed U.S. military procurement scheme. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that, according to a January 2006 study by the Rand Corp., the tanker modernization program might not even be needed.
Boeing's protest will only run up the tab on what may be an already frivolous procurement.