After several fits and starts, the Air Force is finally set to bid out a $40 billion contract to build a fleet of aerial refueling tankers to replace our current Eisenhower-era fleet. Two companies are in the running to build the tankers — Boeing and Airbus, which is based in Toulouse, France. Boeing looks ready to build a tanker based on its 767 airliner, while Airbus likely will offer a tanker based on its A330 airliner.
While there are arguments for choosing either plane, here are my top eight reasons for keeping the contract in American hands:
* Experience. Boeing has been building America's tankers for the past 50 years, and is now producing its fifth-generation refueling boom. Airbus is not fully operational with its first tanker or its first boom.
* Time. Boeing has a factory producing 767s right now, while Airbus plans to ship A330 parts to be assembled in a yet-to-be-built facility in Alabama, which could delay the program for another five years.
* Size. While the A330 is too large and heavy to land on many U.S. and allied airfields, the 767 can access the same bases as our current fleet. That makes the Boeing plane more available, and cheaper, because the larger A330 would require large military construction costs for reinforcing and widening runways and building larger hangars.
* Safety. Airbus' A330 is too large and heavy to perform emergency breakaway and overrun maneuvers critical to the safety of the refueling process, while Boeing's medium-sized 767 is sized and powered appropriately for these maneuvers. Additionally, the larger, less-agile A330 presents an easier target for an enemy.
* Security. Airbus and its parent company, European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., are loyal to their own national interests, not ours. If EADS' parent governments disagree with U.S. military policy, if they are threatened by an enemy for providing military assistance to the United States, or if they decide to seek profits by sharing our tanker technology with governments that may be hostile to the United States, our national-security interest could suffer.
* Reliability. Will Airbus stick to the terms of the contract or charge more down the road? Citing Germany's largest newspaper, Bloomberg's Cornelius Rahn reported this month that "Airbus is putting pressure on governments that have ordered its A400M transport plane to contribute more money to the financing of the project.... Airbus wants about 5.3 billion euros ($7.6 billion) more than the 20 billion euros agreed on in 2003 in order to deliver 180 of the military transports."
If Airbus is willing to shake down its own governments at the last minute for an additional 40 percent, what makes us believe the U.S. Air Force will not receive a similar ultimatum?
* Subsidies. The World Trade Organization recently ruled that Airbus has taken billions of dollars in illegal trade subsidies from European governments that were specifically intended to make Airbus' prices competitive with Boeing. Such subsidies violate our free-trade agreements and certainly our sense of fair play. If we ignore such blatant violations of our free-trade agreements, it will only serve to encourage other countries to cheat their way into U.S. military contracts.
* Industry. The American industrial base is challenged on many fronts. And while we must adapt to the global economy and be competitive within it, we must also be judicious in maintaining an industrial base when it comes to vital strategic programs. Certainly we would not outsource nuclear-missile production to a foreign government. Are the tankers that keep us a global military power any less important?
Airbus may yet surprise us with some spectacular deal on an airplane we haven't heard about. But unless and until that happens, these eight reasons are enough to convince this retired Air Force pilot to go with what we know.