Assessing the fall-out on the tanker

In the three days since the USAF awarded the tanker contract to Northrop Grumman, the fallout has been swift and vitriolic.

Before going there, we’ve updated our corporate website with some analysis of our own. We take a look at the financial impact as we see it for Airbus. It’s less than you might think.

We also take a look at why the KC-30 won over the KC-767. We also posted a link to a Mobile Press-Register interview with the Pentagon’s top procurement officer that’s pretty instructive about how the selection process worked.

Now to the up-to-the-minute news.

Predictably, certain members of Congress are apoplectic over the tanker award to Northrop and its prime sub-contractor, EADS, parent of Airbus. This is particularly so for the delegations from Washington State, where Boeing’s KC-767 would have been built, and Kansas, where it would have been outfitted with the military hardware. Boeing’s labor unions are also, shall we say, a bit upset.

The reactions are understandable, but to be honest, misdirected. As defense analyst Loren Thompson pointed out in his report of Monday, the competition wasn’t even close–Northrop won going away in the assessment of capabilities. Northrop, in using the Airbus A330-200 platform, simply had a better airplane and a better proposal than did Boeing. Northrop also has a tanker that’s in testing (for the Australian Air Force, with delivery scheduled early next year), while Boeing’s KC-767 Advanced Tanker is merely a computer airplane (we used to say “paper airplane”). The 767AT is not the same airplane Boeing sold to the Italian and Japanese air forces. Furthermore, those tanker programs were beset by aerodynamic flutter and certification issues, and delivery to each country is years late. The USAF took note of these problems and Boeing lost major ground as a result in the competition.

The Congressional reaction (and the labor unions, too, for that matter) should really be directed at Boeing. Mismanagement of the KC-767 “standard” program, an inferior proposal and a less capable plane resulted in the loss. The critics now implicitly suggest that the Air Force should buy an airplane that doesn’t meet the desires of the Air Force. Boeing, typically, continues its public relations campaign feeding this anger rather than accepting that its proposal simply didn’t cut it.

Admittedly this would not be the first time Congress has imposed an unwanted procurement on a military service branch, should Congress overturn the USAF selection. Washington Senator Patty Murray, the No. 4 ranking Democrat in the Senate, is Boeing’s most vocal supporter and the most vitriolic critic of Airbus. She wants to give the contract to Boeing. Murray’s proclivity for imposing systems is well documented. The local papers reported a recent instance in which she earmarked money for a high speed boat for the Coast Guard to be built by a small Washington State shipyard (which, not so coincidentally, was a campaign contributor). The Coast Guard didn’t want the boats, didn’t ask for the boats and when the boats were completed found that they were totally unsuitable for their intended use. Never put into service, the Coast Guard immediately surplussed the boats.

Boeing spent the last year at least in a well-orchestrated public and political relations campaign raising red-herring issues about the competition that had little to do with the technical merits of the airplanes (ie, subsidies to Airbus and inflated job figures that, in our analysis, bore little relationship to reality). On the few technical merits that were raised, the data was questionable (notably fuel burn claims) and the Air Force itself discounted much of Boeing’s information, according to Loren Thompson.

Boeing went into the competition believing it would get the award, and in this the company was not alone. Right up to the end, every aerospace analyst that weighed in believed Boeing would win. But Boeing’s over-confidence led to an arrogance, we are told, that didn’t play well with the Air Force during its information-gathering. Boeing and Northrop met with the Air Force throughout the process to learn where their proposals were good and where they fell short, allowing plenty of opportunity for additional information to be provided.

With this process, Boeing had a sense of how the competition was going and this could well explain why Boeing engaged in the heated public and political relations battle that it did, concluding that they might well lose on the merits, and this fight would shift to Congress. We opined months ago that this was indeed Boeing’s strategy, though we never wavered in our belief that the USAF would nonetheless find a way to choose Boeing.

There were signs that we picked up, though, that Boeing was worried. We were told directly that Boeing-Everett (WA), where the tanker would be built, was worried about their prospects. We also were told of the existence of a memo from Boeing chairman James McNerney writing that a loss of the tanker project would not be devastating to Boeing. We could never confirm this memo existed, much less that McNerney wrote what was purported. We were also told that Boeing considered the prospects of a win no more than 50-50, late in the game.

In the end, all the political and union posturing, huffing and puffing and threats should be allowed to simply go away. Northrop and EADS won this thing fair and square, it seems, and by a wide margin. Boeing’s proposal simply wasn’t good enough. Why should the war fighter make do with less than the best? We’ve already seen what can happen (in Iraq) when this does happen. Let’s not perpetuate the bad.That’s how the Japanese auto industry overtook the American auto industry.

Boeing should simply cut its losses and apply its energy and talented resources toward the KC-Y tanker program, slated for 2020, and develop the Blended Wing Body for this. The BWB would be a leap in technological advancement that surpasses the A330 (as the A330 surpassed the 767) and even the 787 and the forthcoming A350. Forget offering the 777 in 2020; it will be too old by then. Go with the BWB and Boeing will reclaim its leadership in tankering.

Loren Thompson analyzes Northrop win

Lexington Institute analyst Loren Thompson analyzes the Northrop tanker win in his column today. He has some surprising facts and conclusions. This is a must-read for how Northrop won and Boeing lost.

Here’s a podcast about the future of Airbus, Boeing and the KC-Y program.

Press coverage of the tanker award

Here are some interesting articles about the tanker award to Northrop Grumman:

From the Everett Herald, a look at the new Alabama aerospace center.

From Europe’s AFP news service, US legislators blast award;

From the Chicago Tribune, Boeikng staggered by loss;

We’ll have our own full analysis Tuesday (March 4) on our website.

What does the Northrop win mean?

Every aerospace analyst surveyed by Bloomberg a week ago figured Boeing would win this competition. We did, too.

So what happened? In the end, it came down to what we have been saying all along: did the Air Force want “just” a tanker or did it want a solid, multi-role tanker transport? The Air Force went for the MRTT, saying the selection came down to one word: “more.”

So what does this mean? It’s obviously a big win for Northrop and Airbus and a big loss for Boeing. But perhaps not to the extent some might think.

At a production rate of 12-18 tankers a year, this is the proverbial gnat on the elephant’s rear when you consider that Airbus (or Boeing) deliver around 450 airliners annually.

Depending on the financial assumptions, the revenue to Airbus (or, had it won, Boeing) would have been perhaps around $3bn. This is certainly nothing to sneeze at but when you consider Airbus parent EADS revenue last year was around $55bn (final figures yet to be announced) and Airbus is 80% of this (Boeing was $66bn last year), the figure takes on some context.

Further reduce the $3bn to the airframer, because the engine suppliers grab 25% of this and the rest of the suppliers (avionics, landing gear, etc. etc.) take a portion, and the net revenue to the airframer is far less than the raw numbers suggest.

We’ll have a full financial analysis Tuesday on our corporate website.

Expect Boeing to protest and Boeing’s partisans to take it to Congress.

It’s Northrop Grumman!

Just got word from three sources-Northrop Grumman!

USAF changes specs, may taint process

Incredibly, Reuters reported yesterday that the Air Force changed its criteria at the last minute in the KC-X program that lowered the score of the Northrop Grumman KC-30 proposal. The Mobile Press-Register reports that Boeing’s KC-767 score was also lowered but that the effect was to reduce the cargo-troop carrying capability important of the tankers, which was a major KC-30’s selling point.

This is an astounding development. The USAF has made every effort to provide the appearance of fairness in what is perhaps the most controversial procurement program in decades. By making this last-minute change that undercuts a major attribute of the KC-30 only taints the process and is sure to be a basis of a Northrop protest if it loses. This is also likely to attract the attention of Sen. John McCain, who campaigns on his oversight of the previous scandal of the KC-767 award in 2002.

Furthermore, recall that Northrop nearly withdrew from the competition because the Air Force initially wasn’t going to place a lot of importance to the cargo-troop capability of the evaluation process. For the Air Force to change the criteria at this late date invites a protest–even Boeing might cite this if it loses, on procedural grounds.

This is a dumb, dumb move on the part of the Air Force, no matter how they explain it.

US Airways says ‘no’ to A340 China lift

US Airways received an award to fly from Philadelphia to China in 2009 and there were wide reports that the company was looking for Airbus A340s to serve as interim lift until the A350 could be delivered beginning in 2014.

Even one official of the company said so at the annual media day today. But in private conversation with CFO Derek Kerr, he told us it ain’t gonna happen. Kerr said he has no interest in the A340 and the airline will use the A330-200, with load restrictions when necessary, to serve the route until the A350 can be delivered.

Dodging a bullet

Boeing dodged a bullet when a court refused to let a discrimination lawsuit go forward, but the bullet missed two targets: the discrimination itself but also perhaps the tanker contract.

We’re told that under federal rules, Boeing could be ruled ineligible for federal contracts if found guilt of discrimination. In received a phone call just this week from someone taking issue with our view that the KC-X contract was Boeing’s to lose. This person believed that Boeing could lose it because of alleged discrimination.

If this caller was correct–and we simply didn’t have time to check out the facts–then maybe Boeing dodged this bullet, too.

Welcome to this new format

Welcome to this new page for news and comment by Leeham Co LLC.

This allows us to be more flexible and timely on matters Airbus and Boeing, and by extension EADS, Northrop Grumman (concerning the KC-30 tanker) and on occasion suppliers to them.

Our scheduled updates are the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of the month. Breaking news may prompt updates in between.

While this site is under construction, please pick up your news and comment at our corporate site.

We hope you’ll enjoy this new on-line newsletter format and the flexibility.