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Boeing's KC-X win could spark Euro backlash

Minutes on from awarding a contract after nearly 10 years, several scandals and a simmering transatlantic trade feud, US Air Force chief of staff Gen Norton Schwartz pronounced over the bitter saga of the KC-X tanker competition.

"I'm pleased ," Schwartz told reporters in the Pentagon's briefing room on 24 February, "that we'll get about delivering a capability that's long overdue - and we'll stop talking about it."

But selecting Boeing for the nearly $34 billion programme to start replacing KC-135Es delivered a half-century ago merely ended one conversation and began other. The debate over which proposal - Boeing's KC-767 NewGen Tanker or the EADS North America KC-45 - might win is settled, but the question over what the Europeans might do about the strangely surprising loss has only started.

The reality of pitting Boeing against the parent company of Airbus to claim the largest US military aircraft contract awarded in a decade meant KC-X was pushed deep into the political fray. If the outcome had favoured EADS's bid, a powerful domestic backlash was almost certain.

The loss of the KC-45 bid, which appeared to stun even some of Boeing's strongest supporters, may yet trigger a fierce European response. As EADS executives were debriefed on 28 February by the air force's decision makers, the first hints of a European backlash appeared in the French press.

Newspaper Les Echos published a small article four days after the contract award noting that the USAF's decision on tankers will make it "very difficult" for Paris to purchase the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle, which is competing against the EADS Talarion and a Dassault/Thales/Indra consortium offering the Israel Aerospace Industries Heron TP.

Perhaps of greater concern to USAF officials is the threat that EADS could protest over the KC-X decision, with the possibility of at least delaying or - at worst - overturning it.

Three years ago, Boeing successfully challenged the air force's decision to buy the Airbus A330-based KC-45, embarrassing the service's acquisition workforce and prompting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to temporarily remove the programme from the air force's authority.

In the second competition, the air force went to great lengths to avoid repeating its mistakes in the first round - notwithstanding an errant shipment in November that sent documents containing scores for one part of the KC-X evaluation to the wrong bidders.

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