European Whining Won't Make Airbus the Right Choice

The Pentagon released the KC-X request for proposal earlier this month followed by European Aeronautical Defense (EADS) and Space-Northrop Grumman consortium’s announcement that it was withdrawing from bidding for the $35 billion air-to-air tanker contract.

Although EADS-NG’s pull out left only one bidder, Boeing’s offer of the NewGen KC-767, the Pentagon was prepared to proceed with the process. The airplane that best fit the RFP specifications and Air Force requirements appeared to be the winner, putting the warriors on the front line closer to finally getting replacements for 50-year-old tanker planes. Having failed in its gamble to delve deeper into the American defense contract market with the wrong product for the job, EADS and its European government backers now want more time to reshuffle their cards.

No sooner had EADS’ CEO Louis Gallois said that his company would not bid for the contract without a North American partner than French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused the United States of trade violations. Sarkozy said that issuing the final RFP favoring a smaller tanker than EADS-NG’s A330-based KC-45 variant was not the proper way for the U.S. to “behave.”

Multiple European Union Trade commissioners, France’s prime minister, the defense minister, the European affairs minister and a German federal minister of economics, all whined that “its protectionism.” Threats of retaliation against U.S. defense suppliers have been made.

Then, with about 60 days until the Pentagon’s RFP response period ends, Gallois said there is insufficient time to form a new partnership—possibly with Lockheed Martin—“to compose another bid” for the 179 aircraft tanker contract. Granting EADS additional time to push an airplane unsuitable for the role and further delaying the tanker procurement is unacceptable. The game should end now.

The Boeing KC-767 fits all the RFP specifications, but EADS offered a much larger, more expensive to build airplane than was asked for by the RFP. The Airbus lacks the performance for standard tanker maneuvers and would require billions of additional dollars for airport facility upgrades. The EADS KC-45 cannot refuel helicopters or the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor.

While also incorporating composite materials construction and fly-by-wire flight controls, the Boeing plane has not demonstrated a history of in-flight structural failures that the Airbus has. The Airbus A-300 series has a perfectly horrifying record of the vertical tailfin and rudder falling off, and questions about Airbus’s computer “laws” governed flight controls to prevent pilot-induced structural failures have been raised. It all adds up to the A330 being the wrong airplane for the U.S. tanker fleet.

A decade ago the military asked for an airplane, urgently needed now, to replace an aged fleet of KC-135 and KC-10 tankers. The bidding process, now in its third permutation and tarnished by procurement scandals, pork-barrel politics, and influence peddling, pitted European allies against American jobs and military strategy. Obscured by the political wrangling and sales propaganda is that the RFP is really about obtaining the right replacement airplanes for the Air Force’s mission and our national security.

EADS could have offered a mid-sized tanker more suitable to the RFP specs, but bet on the bigger airplane, which is still in development and has not pumped a single pound of fuel down the boom in service with any air force, winning the contract because of added value from capabilities outside its role as a tanker.

The EADS airplane, with or without a North American partner, is the wrong choice and will remain the wrong choice unless the company drastically changes its strategy and offers an appropriate airplane. That is unlikely to occur over the next 60 days, 60 weeks, or even 60 months.

EADS gambled and lost trying to sell a tanker our military does not want, or need. Also lost were thousands of European jobs and a foothold for the company on American soil. Complaints of protectionism and unfair trade are mere sour grapes after an expensive, time-consuming process that has for too long delayed urgently needed replacements for the aging KC-135 tanker fleet.

It is absurd to waste additional time and money while further delaying the replacement process on the Build Them Both organization’s request that the President intervene and order the purchase of both airplanes—an issue Sarkozy said he will address at an upcoming meeting with President Obama. European demands for delay is nothing more than time wasted reconsidering the wrong airplane.

If there is any protectionism involved, it is the protection of our country’s national defense efforts, our military personnel on the front lines, and American jobs. The time has come to move forward with the contract process and do what is right for the United States, not kowtow to the demands of foreign interests who tried, and failed, to dictate this country’s military defense.