Ideally, the Air Force's $35 billion air-refueling tanker contract would go to the best bidder, not the only one. But if Northrop Grumman's decision against competing for the contract leaves Boeing the sole bidder and therefore the winner, Kansans can live with that.
They need and deserve the finishing jobs that are sure to come with a Boeing win nearly as badly as the Air Force needs new tankers. The CEO of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. —the parent of Boeing rival Airbus and Northrop's partner in 2008's round of bidding — sounded unequivocal Tuesday in ruling out a bid "alone or with others." But even if EADS decides to make a solo proposal, Boeing still will deserve an easy win. If the Pentagon fast-tracks a sole-source deal, as a spokesman suggested Tuesday, all the better.
All this may seem presumptuous, especially with an Airbus engineering facility expanding in Wichita's Old Town. Those jobs are locally important, too.
But the truth is that Boeing is, and always was, best suited to build the next generation of air tankers, which will use its 767 airframe. The untested Airbus tanker, based on the A330 commercial airliner and tainted by illegal European government subsidies, never sounded like the best fit for the Air Force. In fact, it wouldn't even fit runways and ramps at military bases around the world.
If EADS/Northrop had won the contract, a significant amount of the work and tax dollars also would have ended up abroad. And if ever there was a wrong time to be offshoring jobs building U.S. military aircraft, this is it.
Predictably, Northrop's news was met with a volley of hyperbole from Alabama, where an EADS/Northrop plant would have been built for the contract. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who briefly blocked confirmation of dozens of Obama appointees last month in a gambit to deliver the tanker contract to EADS/Northrop, said, "The Air Force's refusal to make substantive changes to level the playing field shows that once again politics trumps the needs of our military" — as if changing the specifications to favor Northrop and Alabama automatically would have served the military's needs.
At least Northrop Grumman's leaders deserve credit for not filing a protest over the tanker specifications, which would have meant more delay. And good for the members of Kansas' congressional delegation, and especially Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, for their fervent advocacy on behalf of the Air Force's needs and Kansas and U.S. jobs.
As should have been the case through three rounds of bidding over nearly a decade, the Pentagon's guiding principle must be what's best for the military.
But what's best for the American work force should be a close second, because of the awful toll that aviation manufacturing has paid during this recession.
Let's get on with this contract, so Wichita's aviation workers can get to work.