Boeing will build the next generation of tankers, which the Air Force depends on to extend its global reach. Image: CC mashleymorgan/Flickr

Boeing has been selected by the U.S. Air Force to supply the tankers that will upgrade its aging air refueling fleet. The Boeing tanker contract is a victory over European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS), which most analysts predicted would come out the winner. The Boeing tanker win was criticized by Republicans who were backing the French company because it would have built the tankers in Alabama, a red state.

Air Force tanker fleet is crumbling

After a 10-year battle prolonged by controversy, Boeing was awarded the $35 billion contract to build the next generation of refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force. Boeing and EADS have each won the tanker bid previously, but each time the offer was rescinded after charges that the selection process was tainted. While the Pentagon dithered and the aerospace companies spent millions on lobbyists, the Air Force tanker fleet carried on with crumbling KC-135s built mostly during the 1950s. Phase one of the Boeing tanker contract calls for 18 KC-46A models by 2017. The order is expected to expand to 179 planes, which will be assembled in Everett, Wash., and equipped in Wichita, Kan. Boeing said the tanker contract will support 50,000 jobs.

Why Boeing won the tanker contract

At a Pentagon news conference, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said the Boeing tanker win over EADS was based on “warfighting requirements, price and life-cycle costs.” Boeing won the price shootout because its cost of building the KC-46A and flying it for 30 years is lower than the EADS price. The EADS tanker is based on the super jumbo Airbus A330, which burns more than one ton more fuel per hour than the smaller Boeing 767-based tanker. To the Pentagon, one ton per hour for 179 planes over 30 years was a big number.

Republicans back French company over Boeing

Boeing’s successful bid to design and build tankers entirely in the U.S. was criticized by Republican lawmakers. To appease the Pentagon, EADS, a French company, vowed to build its tanker in Mobile, Ala., a red state. Boeing is headquartered in Chicago and builds planes north of Seattle. Illinois and Washington are blue states. Alabama senator Richard Shelby is a Republican who criticized the Obama administration’s bailout of the financial industry as something that “sounds like France.” After the EADS tanker was shot down in flames, Shelby said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the “Chicago politics” that handed Boeing the tanker contract.


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