For all of their happy talk about improving relations with America’s traditional allies, Democrats didn’t hesitate to blast the Bush administration after the Pentagon awarded a lucrative contract for Air Force refueling tankers to an American company and its European partner. The alliance between Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, which is the corporate parent of Airbus, beat out Boeing for a deal worth at least $35 billion to replace an aging fleet.
Hillary Clinton complained of outsourcing and Barack Obama expressed surprise that “an American company … would not have done this job.” In a press release, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi questioned “the national security implications of using an aircraft supplied by a foreign firm.” At a hearing, Democratic congressman John Murtha threatened to cut off funding for the contract.
#ad#There’s a name for this type of rhetoric: protectionist. Democrats specialize in it, as anybody who has watched their presidential nominating process knows. In recent weeks, Clinton and Obama have promised not only to block new trade agreements but also to undo established ones, such as NAFTA.
A few Republicans, who really ought to know better, have added their voices to this liberal chorus. “I’m mad,” huffed senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. “We should not be beholden to the French for parts and maintenance for the defense of our nation and we should not require our military personnel to learn to speak French to be able to operate our refueling tankers.”
No, we shouldn’t — and outside of Brownback’s vivid imagination, nobody is proposing such a thing. By most accounts, the process by which Northrop Grumman and EADS secured the tanker contract was fair. Just a few weeks ago, Brownback was praising “the open nature of this competition.” So were many other Boeing allies.
Then they lost. This is certainly a source of immense disappointment to Boeing, which is a longtime supplier of Air Force tankers. The company possibly believed it was a shoe-in against Northrop Grumman and EADS, which are relative newcomers to the aerial-refueling-tanker business. Yet Air Force officials insist that the KC-45A, based on the Airbus A330, is a better choice for the military. Air Force acquisition chief Sue Payton, dragged up to Capitol Hill for a grilling, told lawmakers that Northrop Grumman and EADS “provided the best overall value to the warfighter and to every American taxpayer, based on the competition in the evaluation.”
Boeing has filed an appeal with the General Accounting Office, which has the authority to make the Air Force reopen the bidding process. The company claims that the military’s standards of evaluation shifted between the time it requested proposals for new tankers and made its selection. Meantime, it plans to fight in the court of public opinion, claiming that the Air Force’s choice will cost jobs and harm national security.
The first claim is dubious. A military contract is not a make-work program and shouldn’t be treated as such, even though suggestions to the contrary are politically convenient during times of economic uncertainty. As it happens, the tankers that the Pentagon wants to buy will be manufactured in Europe and assembled in Alabama. Northrop Grumman’s contract will support tens of thousands of jobs in the United States.
The second claim, about national-security risks, is worth more attention. Boeing’s backers have argued that the technology of moving fuel from one aircraft to another through an aerial boom is sensitive and can’t be allowed into the hands of potential adversaries. We don’t ask Chinese companies to supply the military with surveillance probes and aircraft carriers, after all. Yet it’s a big step down from satellites and warships to a flying gas station. A next-generation aerial boom, said Boeing spokesman William Barksdale in the New York Times, is “not a huge leap of technology.”
There’s a final angle to this controversy, and it involves John McCain. Six years ago, the Air Force wanted to lease 100 tankers from Boeing. Yet the contract was canceled, in part because McCain called attention to improprieties in the bidding: an Air Force acquisitions official gave preferential treatment to Boeing at a time when she was negotiating a job with the company. She and a Boeing executive eventually served time in prison and Boeing’s CEO resigned. McCain has spoken with pride over his role in this episode and claims to have saved taxpayers $6 billion.
If this collusion had come out after the leasing deal with Boeing was fully consummated, Democrats would have screamed about the Bush administration’s corruption. Today, however, they seem to wish McCain hadn’t stuck his nose where it didn’t belong. “We are sending the jobs overseas, all because John McCain demanded it,” sniffed congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. “I hope the voters of this state remember what John McCain has done to them and their jobs,” said congressman Norm Dicks of Washington state, which is the home of many Boeing employees.
McCain is rightly sticking to his guns. “I’ve always felt that the best thing to do is to create the best weapons system we can at a minimum cost to taxpayers,” he recently said.
That’s a good principle. Unfortunately, many of his critics abide by a different one: It’s okay to have a competition — until the other side wins.