The Boeing Hostage Crisis

The U.S. Air Force has maintained for some time it needs a new aerial refueling tanker to replace its aging fleet. With some aircraft pushing 50 years of age (wow!), it seems all the more remarkable that a seven-year replacement effort has yielded little except controversy (daily), disgrace (much) and at least one prison sentence (Boeing).

On Sept. 10, Defense Secretary (and occasional superhero) Robert M. Gates, who not long ago had announced he had hoped to have a actual contract (for aircraft no less!) before year’s end, told Congress that DoD had made the process so complex in those years and it had become so charged with emotion, it was impossible to hold a competition that would be viewed as fair and objective.

Solution: Gates has punted the issue to next administration for it to devise “a new acquisition strategy for the KC-X.”

Our take: No gas, no go. It can be seen as a security issue.

Speculators, and the vultures they fly on, say procurement throughout DoD just might be that bad. Not that there has been any indication from the other services.

To recap: This Air Force tale of woe began in 2001 when it pushed for a replacement. In 2003, the junior service agreed to a sole-source deal in which it would lease a tanker fleet from Boeing (which sounds odd.) The deal turned scandal when some shady deals were revealed involving a former Air-Force-procurement-official-turned-Boeing-employee and Boeing. At least two people were sent packing to prison.

Fine. A contract to build the replacement aircraft went out for bid and was awarded to Northrop Grumman in partnership with Boeing archenemy, Darth Vader (really Airbus parent company, EADS.) Rebidding efforts became mired in controversy. Superhero Gates snatched the process from the Air Force and placed responsibility with DoD procurement officials. Boeing continued to hold DoD hostage when it threatened to walk if further demands were not met. (Who does this? What was DoD afraid of?) In the meantime, Superhero canned the Air Force leadership. Boeing cocked the hammer and held the gun to Superhero’s head. Game over. See everyone next season.

Gates may be a man who knows his limitations or DoD procurement (from top to bottom) is seriously flawed. How many contracting commands does the Army now have? The Navy shells out billions to defense behemoths without getting a ship launched. Have the fat cats of defense gotten even fatter off a dead-in-the-water process?

Sounds like a job for the new Dynamic Duo — Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke.

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