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Freedom Fuel

A tale of two tankers.

12:00 AM, Aug 22, 2007 • By BILL ROGGIO and MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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1038499987_48868b53aa.jpgBoeing employees at the red-white-and-blue rally in Everett.

THE COMPETITION TO REPLACE the Air Force's aging fleet of KC-135 air-to-air refueling tankers has seen two of this country's biggest defense firms--Northrop Grumman and Boeing--square off for one of the biggest defense contracts in history. The initial contract for 80 aircraft is valued at $40 billion, and the service has plans to purchase as many as 100 more at an as yet undetermined cost. Factor in the high probability that allied air forces will follow the Pentagon's lead and the numbers add up to maybe as much as $80 billion over the life of the program (the Air Force currently flies 531 KC-135s, all built before 1965), with a final decision from the Pentagon likely to come down at the end of the year.

Which is why both competitors are pulling out all the stops. Boeing recently invited a small group of bloggers, your correspondents included, to see the company's production line in Everett, Washington. We traveled aboard the Boeing company's private jet--a luxurious 737 complete with master bedroom, gold-plated bathroom fixtures (or at least it looked like gold), and a host of other conveniences befitting the company jet of a company that makes jets. We got to walk through the massive hangar (the world's largest building by volume at 472 million cubic feet) where the Boeing entry--a modified version of the venerable 767 airliner--will be built. For the main event, Boeing staged a rally inside the hangar, complete with a senator, three congressmen, a troop of Boy Scouts, and what appeared to a marching band, all waving little American flags.

It was a red-white-and-blue scene, and that's exactly the message Boeing is trying to send. On the merits, the competition from Northrop Grumman is stiff. But there's more to it than that. Northrop has partnered with Europe's Airbus, Boeing's primary competitor in the civil aviation market, to offer the KC-30, a modified version of the Airbus A330. So while final assembly of the KC-30 will be done here in the United States, much of the work will be done in . . . France.

Not surprisingly, Boeing is pitching a simple, and effective, message to anyone who will listen: Buy American. If the Pentagon doesn't, the U.S. Air Force will be flying French airplanes, and Congress will have to explain why American tax dollars are subsidizing French industry.

And it isn't just Boeing that's making the pitch. The three Democratic congressmen who turned out for the Boeing rally, Reps. Norm Dicks, Jay Inslee, and Rick Larsen, as well as Washington senator Patty Murray, were emphatic on the need to keep the tanker an American-made venture, both to maintain America's industrial base and for reasons of national security. These Democratic lawmakers exuded a deep distrust of the Europeans and their ability to keep their word on building the tanker--in fact, they sounded an awful lot like Republicans.

Inslee explained, "We're in the World Series of aerial refueling...when you're in that situation ... and it's the bottom of the ninth, and the bases are loaded, you do not put in a new recruit from Single-A baseball from France who may be good at soccer but should never play baseball."

"What if all the sudden somebody over in Europe is mad about the United States over some issues and decides we're not going to supply parts to Airbus because we're mad politically," said Dicks, alluding to a Swiss company's refusal to provide parts for smart bombs during the run up to the Iraq war. "The Europeans, you never know what they are going to do."