Right now, a French aircraft manufacturing company is trying to push aside an American company to pilfer some large military contracts paid for by the American taxpayer. If this company wins, our military will be degraded while we outsource military infrastructure to a company based in a European nation not known for winning wars. This push should be resisted by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The fact is that the French-produced refueling tanker is a big military aircraft with high costs associated that has not proven to be superior to American-made smaller ones. Also, American-made products are usually superior to foreign-produced ones – especially when it comes to military hardware. These two elements of government military procurement are in play in a battle between the French company Airbus and American company Boeing.
Back in the early 2000s, European aircraft maker Airbus bet big. It announced the A380, a massive four engine jet that would be the largest aircraft possible. The goal was to take away the business that was being enjoyed by American competitor Boeing’s successful 747 four engine plane.
The French produced A380 had a sticker price higher than other planes, and there were plenty of knock-on costs as well. Airports had to invest in longer runways and gate facilities for the giant planes. Those investments were ultimately wasted. "For example, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey is said to have made $175 million worth of infrastructure alterations for the aircraft,” the site simpleflying.com reported.
“At the same time as Airbus was pushing the A380, its rival Boeing was pursuing a different path with the 787 Dreamliner, a plane that could fly a similar range on only two engines and offered airlines greater flexibility in terms of routes,” is the way the Financial Times put it in 2019. Thus, instead of bigger, Boeing opted for better.
The American company’s approach was the better one. The company lost tens of billions of dollars on the program, although nobody seems sure exactly how steep those losses were. Later this year, Airbus will deliver the final A380.
That is all in the realm of commercial aircraft. However, the two companies have been on similar paths in military aircraft. Airbus is focusing on bigger. Boeing has perfected better. Take the current discussion over the Air Force’s tanker program.
The Pentagon is looking ahead and wants a new refueling tanker design in 10 years or so. But before that plane comes into service, plenty of aging tankers, some decades old, will need to be replaced. To bridge the gap, the Air Force wants to buy more than 140 tankers in the years ahead.
“Boeing and Airbus are the only makers of new, jet-powered, strategic refueling planes,” Defense One wrote this year. “Boeing’s KC-46 is based on the 767 airliner, while Airbus’ Multi-Role Tanker Transport, or MRTT, is based on the A330.” The Airbus tanker can boast of being bigger, but the KC-46 is already in the skies. It is certified to refuel almost all types of combat aircraft. Running those tests again, at a potential cost of more than a billion dollars, wouldn’t make any sense.
Meanwhile, the Airbus option, like its A380, maybe too big. "The Airbus tanker is 40% heavier than KC-46 and takes up nearly 50% more space on the ground,” military analyst Loren Thompson wrote. That means airports would need to invest in expansion or else have fewer planes in service. "The Airbus tanker also has a bigger turning radius than KC-46 (150 feet versus 129 feet), further stressing available space at remote airfields.” The Airbus version burns more fuel as well.
Airbus wants to build its planes partially in Europe and then send them to Alabama, where its partner, Lockheed Martin, could assemble them. Lockheed, of course, is the contractor behind such failed planes as the F-35, a “do-it-all” weapon that can’t seem to do much of anything. Meanwhile, Boeing has a dedicated assembly line in the United States, so it can turn out more planes quickly and make changes right away if any are needed. The KC-46 is more versatile and is already capable of carrying passengers as well as fuel.
Decades ago, Boeing’s engineering easily overcame the size advantage that Airbus gave its commercial planes. The same thing will be true in military technology. The Air Force should invest in innovation and supporting American engineering. It will be better off with the KC-46 rather than a larger but less reliable foreign design.
Bob Haueter was Deputy Chief of Staff to former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon.