Wednesday, March 17, 2010

KC-X and the Sky-high Cost of Sky-high Fuel

EADS' (Airbus' parent company's) annual report, about a week ago, contained an interesting note that slipped by many observers. It caught Lord Mandelson's attention and got a bit more ink, but still was largely ignored. That note was that EADS has pulled out of the KC-X bidding.

There's quite a story behind that, and I shall tell it as well I can remember.

The KC-X is the replacement for the old - ancient - KC-135 Stratotankers, the US military's air-to-air refuelling capability and key to global operations. They were adapted from Boeing's 707 airframe - the forerunner of the 747s, 767s and 777s that we see at airports today - and built in the 1950s and 1960s. The youngest ones are 45 years old, and some a decade more than that!

The story of the bidding process is rather unusual. The USAF issued the RFP (i.e. call for bids) in January 2007. The process began in an unusual way by stressing that this was an urgent requirement, and that delays in procurement would put lives in jeopardy. The two bids submitted were from EADS/Northrop-Grumman using a version of the Airbus A330 to be assembled in Alabama using US workers and imported parts, and from Boeing with a modified 767.

A mere 13 months after the bidding process began, in February 2008, the selection was made: EADS/NG had won. Again, in an unusual move, the USAF made a point at the press conference that, due to the age of the equipment being replaced, delays would cost lives - a not-too-subtle warning. This didn't seem to bother Boeing, though, who filed an appeal against the decision. That appeal was upheld in June 2008, bidding re-opened in July following the forced resignation of the head of the USAF - and then the project was put on hold in September. A year later, September 2009, bidding started again.

The project, particularly the un-selection and reopening of bids, has been dogged by allegations of jingoism amongst the US players: a feeling that letting a foreign company win would be unAmerican. This, despite the fact that Northrop-Grumman is at least as American as Boeing, that a significant proportion of the work would be undertaken by Americans in America, and that Boeing were - in 2003 - accused of corruption and stripped of $1bn of government contracts.

EADS has apparently realised that the deck was stacked against it, and pulled out in March this year, leaving this whole sorry mess as nothing but a historical note. KC-X is still on the drawing board. The US is still flying the creaking half-century-old tankers it was trying to replace. The UK MoD is trying to buy a couple of those rusty old KC-135s, refitted for electronic battlefield surveillance - the RC-135 'Rivet Joint'.

Hey, if you wanted a happy ending, you should have gone to a "massage parlour".

- KoW

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