To protest or not to protest - that was the question facing Boeing after being debriefed by the US Air Force on why it had lost the prestigious KC-X tanker competition to Northrop Grumman and Airbus. Will the company's lawyers find a flaw in the USAF's supposedly protest-proof source selection procedure, or was Boeing just unlucky it did not have the right size of aircraft available within its commercial product line?

Fundamentally, the USAF decided that Northrop's larger A330-based tanker was better than Boeing's "right-sized" KC-767 - a better tanker and a better airlifter, available more cheaply and more quickly.

Politicians are, predictably, incensed that Boeing's "American" tanker was beaten by Northrop's "French" tanker, and even if Boeing decides not to protest, Congress could still have its way - overturning the decision, stopping funding for the programme or changing the law to force the Pentagon to consider job creation, manufacturing location, industrial base and government subsidies when selecting equipment.

But the truth could be that Northrop and EADS had the better product - for this competition. The root of Boeing's loss may be last-minute changes to the final request for proposals, made after Northrop threatened not to compete, that allowed the USAF to consider capabilities beyond the baseline requirement. Boeing says these changes came too late for it to switch to a KC-777, but that aircraft was never more than a brochure, and almost certainly would have been too big.

EADS will be emboldened by its US defence wins, first the US Army light utility helicopter and now the USAF's replacement tanker, but these were successes for its signature commercial product lines, Eurocopter and Airbus. Can EADS also win with its military products, particularly the A400M transport and NH90 helicopter? Unlikely, say some US defence analysts.

Congress is in no mood to countenance another European win and, with the A380 already a candidate to become the next Air Force One presidential transport, there will be a bid to close the protectionist gates.

But if the USAF's source selection process is found to have been scrupulously fair, it will add weight to the argument that aerospace is a global business and the US military will get the best products only by tapping into the world market.

This is more about embarrassment and the arrival of the Airbus versus Boeing war in the heartland of the US defence market. Losing a skirmish to a more-able opponent is no grounds for surrendering to protectionism.


Source: Flight International