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Boeing's New Claim: It Was "Super-Sized" By Northrop Tanker?

Boeing Headquarters
Boeing Headquarters

The Government Accounting Office has one month to go in deciding whether the Air Force tanker decision should be allowed to take flight or remain grounded.

As the clock ticks down, the rhetoric ticks up, just as it did before the original decision, which ended in a surprise win for Northrop Grumman /EADS. This continues to be the hottest contest in memory, with billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake.

Boeing offered up a tanker based on the 767, but it lost in an upset to an aircraft based on the larger Airbus A330. Boeing filed a challenge and has been regularly issuing press releases ever since, often accusing the Air Force (one of its most important clients) of changing the rules after the game.

"Despite the fact that the stated parameters for evaluating the aircraft said no extra credit would be assigned for exceeding certain requirement objectives," Boeing says in its latest release, "the Northrop Grumman and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) team received such credit. As a result, the oversized Airbus A330-based KC-30 was selected."

"Oversized" sounds like obese, doesn't it? Like oversized baggage or the oversized passenger sitting next to you on the airplane. That's apparently the point.

Boeing says the KC-767 is "right-sized" for the flight-time and fuel capacity necessary for most refueling operations. The winning Northrop Grumman/EADS plane is described as unnecessarily bloated and potentially even unsafe.

"Our competition likes to talk about offering more, more, more," Boeing says, "but in reality, the KC-30 will cost more to operate, more to maintain, and more to house, with the U.S. taxpayer footing the bill." Northrop Grumman, of course, sees things very differently.

Northrop has been an also-ran for years, seemingly unable to land the prime role in any big contract. But this huge win is thrusting the company into the spotlight, forcing it to learn a new type of warfare--verbal--requiring the defense contractor to defend itself in a way it hasn't had to before, at least publicly.

But while Northrop Grumman has stopped all work on the tanker until the GAO completes its investigation, this Friday the company will celebrate the tanker win with a party (press invited) near its home base in Los Angeles.

By the way, earlier this week it celebrated a separate big, billion dollar win to sell the Navy unmanned aircraft for maritime surveillance. Which company did Northrop Grumman beat out in that contest? Boeing AND Lockheed Martin .

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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