Thursday, January 29, 2009

The value of field work

A Congressman who will play an influential role in the contest between Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team over the aerial tanker said Thursday that you get a different perspective when you get out of Washington and go out in the field.


Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, visited Mobile, Ala., Thursday to talk to officials and see the site where EADS North America hopes to assemble the tankers to replace the Air Force's aging fleet. He also visited a Mobile shipyard involved in building next-generation warships. No doubt it was all designed to show Murtha the critical role Mobile plays in the nation's defense.

Murtha, who said the visit was very helpful, said before departing that he was particularly impressed with the teamwork he saw in Mobile. But he also said he learned something he apparently didn’t know – that the tanker contest may impact another major Mobile project: building Airbus cargo planes.

“If we work the contract out for the tankers, you not only do a tanker there but you do a cargo airplane there,” Murtha said about the EADS tanker site, currently just an empty piece of land at Brookley Industrial Complex. The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. said last year that it will build a cargo version of its A330 in Mobile if it wins the tanker contest. But that has been lost in the sometimes heated debate over the tanker.

The visit to Mobile is not all that Murtha has on his agenda. He also plans to visit Washington State soon to get a better sense of the project from that state’s and Boeing’s perspective. Little doubt he’ll find it’s just as important there, especially in light of the announcement that Boeing expects to cut 10,000 positions because of the ailing world economy.

Murtha said the Pentagon is moving forward and expects to have a request for proposals in the spring, but he said that during the appropriations process his committee is looking at alternatives. He did not provide details, but at least one option is widely known: a split buy. That option is apparently gaining traction. (Story)

It might, in fact, be the only remaining option to a battle that has been going on for years. In its most recent iteration, the Northrop/EADS team won the contract in February 2008, but a Boeing protest was upheld by the Government Accountability Office. The Pentagon later decided to let the new administration take on the issue.

The split buy option has been rejected by the Pentagon as too costly, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has continued to hold that position. But political pressure might wind up changing that position. In an era where the economy is in a tailspin and the new administration has made clear its desire to do what it can to save jobs, a split buy might be the best of both worlds.

It would save jobs in Washington State - they likely are already thrilled that EADS decided not to compete to build Air Force One - while at the same time create jobs in Mobile and the Gulf Coast region that did not exist. And the possibility of building cargo planes in Mobile means even more jobs in this country. That likely doesn't sit well with EADS workers in Europe, but that's the global economy.

A split buy would also make it so much easier for Alabama political leaders who, no doubt, have been torn in two directions. While they would like to get EADS, they can't afford to alienate Boeing. The Chicago-based company is a major player in Alabama, and its health of upmost importance to the state. Boeing is the largest aerospace company in Alabama, and contributes about $1.2 billion each year to the state economy.

Boeing is so important to Huntsville, the company was recognized this month for its long-time commitment to the city and named the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce's Industry of the Year. Boeing, which first set up operations in Huntsville in 1962, is the No. 3 employer in Huntsville/Madison County with some 3,100 employees at 17 locations. The company’s main facility is 690,000-square-foot, four-building complex on 110 acres at the Jetplex Industrial Park, near the airport. (Story)

Mobile officials little doubt envision something that significant – if not more so – resulting from this initial EADS project. And if a split buy is the way to help make that happen, so be it.

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