Saturday, March 01, 2008

Don't blame the Air Force, blame Boeing

Part of the big news of the day is the United States Air Force's decision to procure Northrop Grumman's KC-45A tanker aircraft instead of Boeing's KC-767 offering as the replacement for aging KC-135 (in service since 1957) - and eventually KC-10 (in service since 1981) - air refuelling tankers.

The "scandalous" aspect to this decision is that the KC-45 is based on the Airbus A330 commercial airliner and is not manufactured in the United States! Airbus, of course, is owned by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Corporation (EADS). Northrop Grumman will be doing final assembly of the KC-45 in Alabama, and will be using domestically-produced jet engines for the planes, but most of the airframe components will be manufactured in Europe.

My first reaction to this decision was surprise (Boeing had been the favorite to win the deal) and then concern that we are sourcing a critical component of the United States' ability to project air power worldwide to a foreign supplier. However, I've done some research and:

1) The per aircraft acquisition cost for both the KC-45 and the KC-767 are essentially the same.

2) The KC-45 is a larger aircraft than the KC-767 and can carry both more cargo (in that role) and more fuel for transfer to "primary mission" aircraft.

3) The Boeing 767 is a 1970s era design - it originally entered airline service in 1982. The aircraft is being retired as a commercial airliner in the next 12-18 months by Boeing in favor of the new 787 Dreamliner. Effectively, had they chosen the KC-767, the USAF would have been the only remaining customer of the plane.

4) The A330 entered service in 1994 and is still in full production. Its replacement, the A350, is still in the early design phase, and won't be flying until 2013 at the earliest.

Sorry, but once I got past my knee jerk reaction to this, it's obvious that the KC-45 is a better option for the United States Air Force, based on the only alternative being the KC-767. Would I have preferred a majority-American constructed aircraft, absolutely.

In my opinion, it is completely Boeing's fault. Why they based their "future" tanker offering on a late 1970s aircraft design when they could have either used either the aforementioned 21st Century 787 is beyond me. The 787 could have carried more than an A330-based platform since it's a comparably sized, and lighter aircraft.

Boeing could have even made their offering based on the even larger 777 aircraft (introduced 1995), which would have dwarfed the capabilities of any alternative. Based on my research, the per unit acquisition cost for either a 777 or 787-based tanker aircraft would have been comparable, if not identical, to that of either the KC-45 or the KC-767!

Great move Boeing; real smart move to try and saddle the best Air Force in the world with 30-year old airplane designs when you could have presented modern, top-of-the-line airframes that are at the cutting edge of civil airliner designs.

As a taxpayer, I'm glad the Air Force chose the KC-45.

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