Sunday, March 2. 2008
A big story here in Wichita is the Air Force's announcement on Friday that they've picked Northrop Grumman over Boeing for a $35 billion contract -- the biggest Defense contract ever -- to build 179 tanker aircraft. Boeing has been lobbying for this contract for at least a decade. They originally tried to push it through as a crooked lease deal, but that got snagged up in all sorts of problems, with one Boeing executive (former DOD contractor) winding up in jail. The old tankers were built by Boeing and are mostly based here in Wichita, where they've been rebuilt several times over to keep them airworthy, so Boeing and Wichita like to think we own this product niche. We've been hearing about all the jobs this contract will bring to Wichita for years now -- a sum that swings between 500 and 3800, hardly impressive numbers given that the high end works out to only one job per $9.2 million cost to the taxpayers.
I've read at least a dozen op-ed pieces in the Wichita Eagle extolling how Boeing is the only logical choice for the contract. I've been tempted to write one myself, arguing that the Boeing proposal is itself mediocre (it's based on the obsolete 767, a scam to reuse already-paid-for tooling while Boeing is selling its new, more fuel-efficient 777 to commercial customers), that the jobs are misleading because nobody's factoring in all the jobs Wichita loses in mothballing the old tankers, that Boeing's whole approach to this contract has been a textbook exercise in corruption, and most importantly that the last thing we really need is to extend America's ability to get into wars on the far side of the world. Indeed, at this point we should be talking about whether we need to replace any tankers at all. $35 billion is a lot of money for something we don't need and shouldn't want.
There's going to be a lot more noise about this in the coming weeks. The Kansas congressional delegation is apoplectic, most of all Rep. Todd Tiahrt, whose single-minded devotion to lobbying for his ex-employer Boeing earned him the Bushian nickname Tanker Todd. We'll especially be hearing about all the jobs the tanker deal will be creating in France (e.g., as opposed to the Boeing jobs that would have gone to Japan and China). It's revelatory that every time a Defense contract gets awarded to a local supplier or the Air Force moves a unit to McConnell here in Wichita, the papers instantly calculate the jobs added, as if that's the only factor that matters. Indeed, it might be, given how worthless to worse these deals are.
It's also worth noting that this wasn't the only Boeing deal that went south this week. Boeing's "virtual fence" to defend us from Mexicans looking to work cheap also flopped. It really is a wonder that Boeing is capable of manufacturing anything that works. At least that's still a requirement for commercial aviation. The Defense Dept. isn't so picky, no doubt thanks to the cronyism and corruption that Boeing did so much to promote.