Some of you may have noticed this blog has an unhealthy interest in the KC-X tanker competition.
I want to explain why.
It isn’t just because KC-X is the biggest US aerospace contract up for grabs until the US Air Force buys a next-generation bomber.
It also isn’t because I think tankers are really such a big deal. In five years, I promise you we’ll think about the winning KC-X platform(s) as much as we think about the KC-135 today, which isn’t a whole lot (even for an aviation geek).
But it is because: The implications of the USAF decision, especially in the event of a victory for the Northrop Grumman/EADS KC-30, are enormous for the US industrial base.
We’re talking about nothing less than the revitalization of a competitive domestic civil aircraft industry for the first time since Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
If you look beyond military aircraft, this could portend the eventual dismantling of Boeing’s manufacturing power base in Seattle and the transfer of the historical heart of the US aerospace industry from the West Coast to the Deep South.
Allow me to explain.
In my imaginary future universe, if the KC-30 wins in whole or in part (hint: “in part” is code for “split buy”), here’s what could happen:
1. Airbus opens a working assembly line in Mobile, Alabama, and establishes a supporting supplier infrastructure throughout the US south.
2. Airbus uses this toehold to expand US operations into the civil aircraft market, first with the widely-anticipated A330-300F freighter.
3. In 2017, Airbus starts building a new narrowbody replacement for the A320 in … Mobile!
4. Boeing’s manufacturing base in Seattle becomes as competitively untenable as Airbus’s production centre in Toulouse is today.
5. Anticipating this result, Boeing starts looking for a new manufacturing home to launch its narrowbody replacement in the 2015 timeframe.
6. The US South, with Charleston, South Carolina, or Jacksonville, Florida, as the leading candidates, become Boeing’s home for the future.
Other alternative futures are possible, but this gives you an idea of what the KC-X competition means for the future of the both the domestic and global aerospace industry.
With so much at stake, it’s amazing how little this aspect of the competition gets covered, but I’m sure that’s going to change. Speculation about Airbus’s wider intentions for Mobile has already popped up here, here and, not least (blush), this blog.