Mount the all-guns-blazing, protest-to-end-all-protests obviously. Well it’s obvious to plenty of residents of Kansas and Washington state – but I doubt if it is to anyone in the Boeing boardroom. Still less obvious after the publication of this paper by Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. This material is clearly blessed by the Air Force and carries a straightforward message: Northrop Grumman/EADS won comfortably on the merits of the proposal. Please don’t argue. Well, they would say that wouldn’t they, but ignoring heavy hints from big customers is a perilous strategy.I think you can see how this affair is now shaping up. For anyone in politics or whose aerospace job is at stake then the whole thing is an inexplicable outrage (and even if privately you don’t think that, you’re most certainly not going to say so.) For anyone who understands aviation, tanking and building aircraft – it’s hard to see why you’d dispute the USAF’s findings in the absence of any persuasive argument.
As Dominic Gates reports in the Seattle Times, not only are Boeing’s local pols queuing up to beat up the Pentagon, but Obama and Clinton have also joined in. Fine presidential candidates as they are, tanker-procurement does not feature prominently on their resumes/CVs. Obama’s thoughts on the subject are actually sufficiently nuanced that they’re not likely to come back to haunt him. But Clinton takes the opportunity to link it all up with the WTO Europe/Airbus vs US/Boeing case. McCain, who was the major driver in the investigation six years ago that scuppered the original award to Boeing, is smart enough to stay above it all. The changed outcome once a proper contest was run speaks for itself, and he’s not going to change anyone’s mind about whether he was right or wrong on the issue.
But having all those folks on your side isn’t necessarily very useful to Boeing. The company has only just rehabilitated itself with the military in the wake of the Druyan and EELV scandals – being a bad loser here might not be smart. And furthermore, as Scott Hamilton at Leeham noted a while back, there is more tanker business to come. Another reason not to pick a fight.
I’m going to predict that the only thing that will provoke Boeing into a protest will be the emergence of a cast-iron argument that the Air Force ran the contest unfairly or was technically wrong. But the Pentagon turned back-somersaults to ensure its process was not just clean, but seen to be clean. On balance I think Boeing will let its tame pols do its fighting for it in Congress and see what happens. And it won’t sign-up for the battle unless it thinks it’s got a better than 50/50 chance.