The story sounded almost too perfect to be true, and it started with a tip from a visitor to this blog. Here’s how the tip was presented to me:
Only months before the controversial tanker contract award, Boeing had defeated Northrop Grumman for a different US Air Force contract and promptly shipped the work — and the jobs — overseas to South Korea. If Northrop had won the contract, all the jobs would have remained in the United States.
Against the backdrop of Boeing’s protectionist-themed tanker campaign, that kind of story would be at least a study in irony, if not a potentially great scoop. But was it true?
I explained the details on Friday to Boeing’s PR staff.
In June 2007, Boeing won the $2 billion A-10 wing replacement program, scoring a coup against a Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman team. It was a coup because Northrop is the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for the A-10, since Grumman acquired Fairchild Republic about 20 years ago.
Six months after contract award, several reports in the Korea press and a 29-word brief in Aviation Week & Space Technology announced that Boeing had transfered manufacturing for the outer-wing panels to Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI).
None of the reports cited a source for the information, and, strangely, I could find no announcement made by either Boeing or KAI.
Boeing’s PR people promised to look into it and get back to me.
Meanwhile, I contacted Northrop’s PR staff. Instead of calling the team handling the tanker contract, I phoned the team in St. Augustine, Florida. This is not only where Northrop builds the E-2D Hawkeye and continues to produce major structures for the EA-6B Prowler. It was also Northrop’s hub for the A-10 competition.
The PR staff told me they were not aware that Boeing may have transferred the outer-wing panels to KAI, but they immediately pounced on the (unconfirmed) information.
Boeing won the A-10 wing replacement competition mainly because they offered a slightly better price, Northrop’s spokesperson said. So Boeing’s apparent decision to ship the outer-wing panels to a lower-cost factory in South Korea could have clinched the deal, Northrop added.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Northrop’s PR professionals. The Lockheed/Northrop team had proposed basing all A-10 wing manufacturing work in St. Augustine. Even as Boeing and its tanker allies complain about Northrop’s choice of a European tanker aircraft, Northrop’s spokesperson said, they took jobs away from American workers to win another contract.
That was a pretty story, but the question still remained: was it true?
Boeing’s PR staff got back to me yesterday, but their first response surprised me. Here’s the email I received from Boeing:
“Our plans have not changed from the day that we announced our bid or the contract win: we are leveraging world-class suppliers as we do on all Boeing programs; the engineering work is being performed in St. Louis; the manufacturing operation will be at Boeing in Macon, Ga.; and the wings will be installed by the Air Force at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.”
That’s as close as you can get to a categorical denial. I was still prepared to believe that the story wasn’t true, but Boeing’s response still left a few questions unanswered. So I replied to Boeing in an email:
“I still need to understand why there were reports in the Nov/Dec timeframe in the Korean press and AvWeek that KAI was building the outer wing panels.
First, can you say specifically where the outer-wing panels will be manufactured? Will the manufacturing actually occur in Macon?
Does KAI have any manufacturing role in the A-10 wing replacement program?
Finally, is the AvWeek report in any way inaccurate?”
A couple of hours later, Boeing’s PR team surprised me again with an email and an apology. It seems the first reply they sent me was incorrect and the result of “confusion”. I’ve worked with these members of Boeing’s PR staff for many years, and I have no reason to believe the error was caused by anything inappropriate.
Here is Boeing’s second reply to my questions, and it should finally set the record straight:
“KIA is a supplier to Boeing and is providing the outer wing panels for the A-10 wing replacement program. The panels are a component of the wing assembly that Boeing is manufacturing at our Macon, GA plant. We have a lot of suppliers for the various parts that go into making the wing, KIA is just one of them. The completed wing assembly then goes to the USAF at Ogden AFB for installation on the A-10.”
So, as you can see, the original tip was true, and the story is accurate.
If you’re looking for black-and-white conclusions to this story (shipping US jobs overseas/bad, keeping jobs here/good), I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place.
There are many shades of the gray in the international defense business, especially when it comes to jobs.
Keep in mind the A-10 wing replacement work was first reported around the same time that South Korea ordered a second batch Boeing F-15s, giving that production line a desperately needed life extension.
Could it be that fewer jobs in St. Augustine resulted in more jobs in St. Louis, where the F-15 is assembled?
It’s also important that Northrop admits Boeing offered the USAF a lower price for the A-10 work, possibly freeing more money for the USAF to spend on other things that required US jobs.
On the other hand, the story should make Boeing’s tanker supporters a little more reluctant to play the protectionism card.
The next time you hear politicians or defense contractors scream about the threat of foreign competition, ask them about KAI’s role in the A-10 wing replacement program.