Northrop grumblin’ about tanker bids

Northrop Grumman executives continue to complain about the way the Pentagon proposes to pick who will build new aerial refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force.

This week, the California-based company said the Pentagon’s plan is unfairly biased toward’s Boeing’s less-costly KC-767 tanker, and as a result, it and joint-venture partner EADS may decide to boycott the bidding. Or it may decide to sue.

A Pentagon spokesman didn’t exactly laugh out loud, but did suggest that the military doesn’t take the threat seriously. “This is an extremely lucrative contract,” spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Northrop Grumman has teamed with Airbus to offer the Air Force a modified A330 tanker. Their proposed KC-30 would be larger than Boeing’s 767, which would allow it to carry more fuel and cargo. But the plane is also less fuel-efficient than Boeing’s version, and since it’s larger, it won’t fit into the Air Force’s existing hangers, which would require expensive upgrades to both buildings and aircraft ramps at each air base where it would be stationed. Boeing also argues that the cargo-carrying capability of the larger plane is irrelevant and not worth the extra cost, since the Air Force will use them as refueling planes, not supply jets.

However, if the Pentagon must have a tanker with cargo capacity, Boeing says it can also offer a tanker based on its state-of-the-art 777-F freighter.

That hasn’t stopped Team Toulouse from unleashing its Mobile Minions, such as Sen. Richard Shelby, who claimed that the proposed bidding process is “a sham.” Eight of nine Alabama members of Congress have signed a letter complaining that the process “fails the test of rationality.”

If Airbus wins the tanker contract, it intends to build a new factory in Mobile, Ala., where it would assemble the planes from parts made in France.

The International Association of Machinists — and District 751 in particular   strongly support the Boeing tanker bid, as do AFL-CIO constiuencies like the A. Philip Randolph Institute. The Boeing plane would be built by highly skilled workers on an existing factory line in Everett, supported by an existing supply chain. That’s a sharp contrast to Team Toulouse’s plan to have a one-of-a-kind, trans-Atlantic joint venture assemble French-built planes in an unbuilt factory, using untrained workers who have yet to be hired.

The Union also feels that the Pentagon should penalize the Airbus bid, because the KC-30 would be based on an Airbus jet that received government subsidies that the World Trade Organization has ruled were illegal. The Boeing bid also would create more American jobs, which is something that should be considered today, as the United States tries to climb out of the worst recession in 75 years, the Union argues.

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