Friday, March 12, 2010

Time Clueless on Tankers

Boeing or Bust: Europeans Cry Foul Over a Defense Contract

In the Time article linked above, yet again the national media comes up looking clueless in its coverage of the endless tanker contract spat. This article, by Bruce Crumley is all about the faux fury of French officials over the supposed unfairness of the bidding process leading up to the recent grandstanding exit of the Northrup Grumman/EADS team from the competition. Crumley takes at face value the French assertions that the EADS team was wronged. Cruley's sole bow to objectivity on this issue is to quote a French defense company executive acknowledging that virtually no country in the world plays big defense contracts straight when the contest involves viable domestic competitors.

That's almost certainly true, but with that as the only nod to balance on this issue it leaves the distinct impression that there are no valid arguments for why the Boeing tanker made the most sense. The fact is that the 767 tanker is a much better fit size-wise as a replacement for the 707-based tankers that the planes bought in this contract are to replace. That means the Boeing tanker can take over for the tankers being retired with much less operational disruption or secondary expenses than the larger A330-based KC45. That in and of itself does not guarantee that the Boeing tanker makes the most sense. It does mean that the predictable cry of foul from the French needs to be put in context.

An important part of that context is that, EADS and it's Airbus subsidiary, which are the real losers behind the thin Northrop veil of domesticity around the KC45 team, really are long-standing (and very successful) industrial policy projects of the major European governments, most notably including France. Neither EADS nor Airbus is a true private enterprise in its history or in its market participation. Of course the European governments that write the checks for EADS are disappointed that they will not be getting to shift some of their subsidy obligations to U.S. tax payer. That fact is no indication in itself of any merit to their complaints, and Crumley's story becomes silly in presenting the frothy performance as though it is meaningful by itself.

Far less defensible from an objectivity standpoint, is Crumley's credulous scribe work for the endlessly embarrassing Alabama Senator, Richard Shelbey. Shelbey and Alabama would have been major beneficiaries of an EADS win, since the KC45 finishing facility was to be built in Mobile. Shelbey and Alabama would be huge winners in an award of the tanker contract to the French company, even if the Air Force, the U.S. aerospace industry, and the American tax payer would not, and he has never been shy about working for that outcome. He has been distinguished by his relentlessness in slandering northern U.S. workers and companies, in the service of his prospective European partners. Any review of Shelbey's past statements on this subject would have disqualified him from being cited as a disinterested American commentator, but Crumley slavishly cites Shelbey as just that.

"Even some American observers groused that the EADS offer was clearly superior to Boeing's revised bids. U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, said "the Air Force had a chance to deliver the most capable tanker possible to our war fighters and blew it" by meddling with the process "to produce the best outcome [for Boeing]."
Read more:,8599,1971382,00.html#ixzz0i0pNje9J

An astute ten-year old could recognize Shelbey's puffed up sanctimony about "war fighters" as the labored spinning of a salesman, but Crumley doesn't have a clue.

Maybe Time should hire some astute ten year olds to help them extract, for their readers, a nuanced and accurate understanding of the complex public policy issues of the day. Journalism like Crumley's here, succeeds only at presenting a meaningless sample scooped out of the mountain of spin that every citizen is inundated with on a daily basis.

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