Boeing Pulling Out Of Tanker Wars--Or Stalling For Time?

Boeing Headquarters
Boeing Headquarters

As I blogged earlier, Aviation Week is reporting that Boeing is "strongly considering" dropping out of the tanker competition. A Boeing official wouldn't comment one way or the other on the story.

I asked veteran defense analyst Cai von Rumohr of Cowen and Company if he thinks the story could be true. Von Rumohr says he thinks the chances are "pretty good" that Boeing is truly considering the threat, because the new Pentagon request from bidders contains two things--a tanker ready next year, and a larger aircraft--which are both "bad for Boeing."

If Boeing did, in fact, drop out, would Congress allow the Pentagon to move forward with only one bidder? "They would be very upset," von Rumohr says of defense officials. "Whether the Air Force decides to call Boeing's bluff we'll see."

Bluff? Von Rumohr says, "I think Boeing's strategy is probably likely to be to try to push this decision into the new year and a new know, if they think that they're for sure going to lose, why not go through with a bluff because it might work."

Why push into a new administration? Clearly a President Obama would favor organized labor and a Boeing tanker. It's possible a President McCain wouldn't want to be seen as dumping on Boeing a second time (McCain is a major reason the original deal to lease tankers from Boeing never happened). Also, the longer this thing drags out, perhaps the greater the chances Boeing could put together a proposal for a tanker based on its larger 777, even though the company has said it has no plans to change planes. But the 777 would be a larger, more "apples to apples" comparison to the proposed Northrop Grummantanker.

On that note, Northrop Grumman tells me it is also meeting with Pentagon officials tomorrow. Spokesman Randy Belote adds that the new request from the Pentagon, "clarifies BUT DOES NOT ALTER the original tanker requirements or alter the tanker specifications. This is key and rebuffs Boeing's supporters calling for a delay in the program.

During the initial competition, each competitor was free to bid whatever tanker it felt would best meet the Air Force's requirements. And we are free to do that again, of course, within the scope of this amended acquisition process." True, but changing horses, or airplanes, at this late date would be extremely difficult for Boeing, given the Pentagon's timeline.

Bottom line, when I asked von Rumohr what he thinks will happen with the tanker deal, he shook his head and laughed, saying "I have no idea."

Video: Boeing is considering bowing out of the Air Force tanker competition.

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