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In The Shadow Of The Tanker

The funny business of defense procurement.

The fate of the Air Force's refueling tanker program remains, well, up in the air. While politicians are pressuring the Pentagon to split the order between the original winner, Northrop Grumman/EADS and challenger Boeing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates still prefers a "winner take all" decision. Some speculate it may require a Presidential veto to ensure the Pentagon gets its way.

And so it goes...

But the refueling tankers aren't the only old airplanes still in service. Flying low and slow in the background of the current headlines is the P-3 Orion, a sub-hunting plane built by Lockheed, which first started flying in 1961. I've always had a soft spot for the Orion. My husband flew it in the Navy, and one of my brothers worked at Lockheed, where it was made. At least the P-3 has a replacement on the way, unlike the tanker. But, like the tanker, this program illustrates the difficulty of doing anything quickly in the modern military.

In what was a huge upset at the time, the P-3's replacement contract went to Boeing instead of Lockheed Martin. When? 2004. Why? Boeing offered up a more versatile and efficient aircraft based on the 737. Last week the first test aircraft, dubbed the P-8A Poseidon, took its first flight. This is five years after Boeing received the contract, for a plane based on an existing airframe, not built from the ground up. It may be flying now, but the first operational aircraft isn't expected to enter service until 2013. Four more years. A total of nine years to get a program truly off the ground, based on an existing aircraft and facing only the "usual" delays and challenges in military procurement. I realize there's a lot of work in building the guts of the new aircraft, and I recognize that the Pentagon changes its mind a lot about capabilities as threats evolve. But...nine years? Really? We went to the Moon in eight.

P-3 Orion
P-3 Orion
P-3 Orion

Meantime, Boeing has unveiled the new paint scheme for the P-8A. I got it in a press release! What could the new color be? How might the P-8A differentiate itself from the iconic P-3C?

Take a look. Here's how the current P-3C looks:

And now (drum roll) here is the new P-8!:

P-8A Poseidon
P-8A Poseidon
P-8A Poseidon

Ok, ok, I know. It makes perfect sense for the planes to retain the same gray color. The point is to fly low and slow and be as invisible as possible. And, quite frankly, trying to change the color would probably add another two years to the process.

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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