Boeing May Not Work on KC-46A in Kansas

Update – It has been reported that Boeing has called a mandatory meeting of all its Wichita employees tomorrow. It is also been reported that part of the new contract with the Machinists requires the KC-46A work to be done in Washington if the Wichita site closes.

Previously Boeing (BA) has done a great deal of their work on military and government aircraft at their facility in Wichita, KS. This has included the VC-25 Air Force One version of the 747, the KC-135 tankers and the E-4A command and control aircraft. It was assumed, especially by the Kansas Congressional delegation, that much of the work on the new KC-46A tanker would also be done at the facility.

Now word is leaking out that Boeing is planning on doing all of the necessary tanker effort at their main facility in Everett, WA. The 767 that will be converted to the tankers will be assembled there but rather then being militarized in Wichita they will remain in Washington. This, understandably, has roiled the media, the workers in Kansas and various Senators and Congressmen.

They feel that their support for Boeing to win the contract is now wasted as rather then seeing more work Boeing could be eliminating jobs and laying people off in Kansas.

Boeing has stated that until they understand fully the effects of changes in the U.S. defense budget that they won’t commit to announcing anything about the Wichita plant and their overall work structure. This may not be until later this year. It had been estimated that over 7,000 jobs will be created by the KC-46A militarization and support efforts with the idea that those jobs would be in Kansas. Now that is not guaranteed.

This may be an effect of the new contract Boeing signed with their main union that allowed them to successfully get the U.S. government to drop action against the company for opening a new facility in South Carolina. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had filed a complaint against the company stating that the only reason Boeing expanded to South Carolina was to retaliate against unions in Washington. This was dropped after the company signed a new deal with the union that promised to keep a great deal of jobs in the Northwest.

Boeing intends to use the South Carolina facility to support commercial 787 production.

If the company does not send KC-46A work to Wichita it will cause severe problems with its relations to that state’s Congressional delegation which has in the past been very supportive of Boeing. The next few months could be very interesting for the company, the U.S. aerospace industry and Kansas.

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Air Force Continues Commitment to KC-46A

At a recent conference the Air Force Secretary, Mr. Michael Donley, discussed the key programs for the Air Force’s future. Facing a declining budget situation the Air Force as all of the services may be forced to choose which investments have a higher priorities then others. Not surprisingly the keys for the Air Force will be the F-35, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), space and the KC-46A tanker.

The KC-46A currently being developed by Boeing (BA) will go into service later this decade to replace the aging KC-135 fleet. In terms of total cost it is one of the largest current defense programs. If the Air Force follows through with the first 170 odd aircraft the cost will be about $35 billion. There are plans to buy another 300 or more.

If there are as significant reductions to the defense budget as being discussed then the KC-46A like so many other programs may see quantities cut. This could be either the total procured or the annual buys. It could also see it being maintained at the expense of other investment programs such as new UAV or space programs.

Tankers are a key force multiplier for the United States. Declining amounts of strike assets increase the reliance on the tanker fleet. The need for the KC-46A is well established and it is a program now that the commitment to Boeing has been made that the U.S. really cannot afford to reduce. Whether this holds true remains to be seen.

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Reports that KC-46 Contract Already Showing Cost Growth

Bloomberg is reporting that the U.S. Air Force has been briefing Congress in preparation for the FY12 budget that the KC-46 tanker contract with Boeing (BA) is already showing growth beyond the initial award price. The first part of the program is for development and testing as well as the delivery of the first 18 aircraft.

The value awarded was $4.9 billion but the indications are that it will be at least $300 million more. The way the contract is structured Boeing will have to cover that cost increase themselves. Boeing, though, seems confident that when all is complete the contract will be executed for close to the $3.9 billion and will not cost the company.

Boeing was awarded the contract in February for the new tanker program. The Air Force plans this as the first phase of a new program that could buy several hundred new tankers to replace the KC-135 and KC-10 fleet currently supporting operations. Boeing will ultimately build over 150 of the KC-46 tanker based on their commercial 767 airliner design. Boeing has also sold 767 based tankers to Italy and Japan with Italy just taking possession of their first aircraft.

The current estimate though of about a six percent cost increase is not a good sign for a program just starting which is going to be held to strict cost standards. One of the major reasons that Boeing won was their much lower price then their competition from Europen aerospace giant EADS (EADS:P) U.S. subsidiary, EADS North America. Their proposal based on the KC-30 tanker ordered by Australia and the U.A.E. was more expensive but was a larger aircraft that could carry more fuel. Further cost growth will only bring more scrutiny and criticism from Congress.

This was the third attempt by the Air Force to award the new tanker contract since 2001. An attempt to award a sole source lease to Boeing was derailed by fraudulent activity by Air Force acquisition chief Darleen Druyun and Boeing’s CFO. In 2008 EADS teamed with Northrop Grumman (NOC) won a contest that was overturned on protest by Boeing. This latest contract is the result of the new competition held due to Boeing’s successful protest.

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Reports Final Proposals Due Next Week for KC-X

Both Boeing (BA) and EADS NA (EADS:P) have met with the U.S. Air Force reportedly to discuss final changes to the KC-X RFP. The companies have until 11 February to submit their final revisions to their proposed solutions to the new aerial tanking requirement.

Boeing has said that they will update their proposal although EADS NA has said they may not. Swirling around all of this final burst of activity is the concerns by some in Congress, the media and at the bidders about the accidental release of information by the U.S. Air Force to each team as well as the two World Trade Organizations (WTO) rulings on both companies receiving illegal subsidies.

Some Boeing supporters in Congress are now saying that the data release gives EADS an advantage and that there should be deeper investigations. The Air Force “reassigned” two personnel as punishment and Congress did have hearings last week about the matter. Washington state, Illinois and Kansas legislators all from states that stand to gain work if Boeing wins sent a letter to the DOD IG asking them to look to see if the data released skewed the contest in EADS’ favor.

All of these conditions make it seem inevitable that there will be a protest to the contract award no matter who wins it. There will also be political pressure from supporters of both companies to review the contract and make sure that there favored winner was not treated unfairly.

All this adds up to further delays in replacing the KC-135 systems made during the Cold War. Once again this problem has been created by the disappearance from the U.S. industrial base of multiple suppliers of large aircraft. Currently only Boeing and EADS make aircraft acceptable to the Air Force to meet this requirement. If there is to be even a modicum of competition the two have to be involved which leads us to the current ugly situation of charges and counter charges of favoritism, jingoism and bias.

This will probably be the biggest contract awarded for the next decade by the Defense Department and is critical to both companies maintaining a foothold in the large military aircraft business worldwide which is leading us to the current situation which does not seem like it will end well.

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Rumors Percolate of a February Award for KC-X

There are starting to be media reports that indicate the U.S. Air Force will announce the winner of the KC-X aerial tanker contract in February of this year. The decision had been planned before the end of 2010 but due to delays in reviewing the proposals and the inadvertent slip up of sending the competition’s information to the two bidders it has now moved to 2011.

In a recent presenstion the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Donley, said that Senate hearings into the information mess may be limited due to the current source selection process. To some this indicates the Air Force does not want the hearing near the decision announcement. The award and potential protest would also constrain what information could be given to the Senate and discussed at the hearing.

Sean O’Keefe, EADS North America’s CEO, also recently said that he expects the award soon. He believes best and final offers will be submitted before January 31st and then the Air Force decision in February.

This will be the third attempt to buy a replacement for the KC-135 aircraft since 2001. The Air Force, Boeing (BA) and EADS (EADS:P) all hope that it will be the last and final try.

There is a good chance no matter who wins the award that there will be a protest. The 35 billion plus contract for these aircraft is the biggest military aviation contract right now. It is critical to both companies aircraft production plans and would give them a significant advantage in future tanker competitions world wide.

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Loren Thompson Predicts EADS Win

The well known aerospace analyst writes that based on discussions he has had it looks good for EADS North America to win the current KC-X new aerial tanker competition. He believes that the information accidentally shared by the U.S. Air Force with EADS and its U.S. competitor, Boeing (BA), indicate that the analysis by the source selection board favors EADS A330 MTT based bid.

EADS did win the contest two years ago teamed with Northrop Grumman (NOC) only to have it overturned on protest by Boeing. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that the Air Force had not applied its own criteria properly in evaluating those bids.

This time around EADS bid by itself and proposed basically the same aircraft. Boeing bid a modified version of their 767 tanker incorporating parts of the new 787 cockpit and other improvements.

Last month the Air Force had to admit it sent information to the two bidders about the others after mixing up the CD’s with data.

In Thompson’s analysis the data showed the Air Force favoring the EADS aircraft. Of course Boeing will have a chance to protest if they really do lose this contract.

In another piece of this very complicated puzzle this latest development may have serious affects on the latest attempt to replace the KC-135 Cold War era tankers.

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Rockwell Collins Plans for KC-X Delay

Rockwell Collins (COL) had a good fourth quarter when they announced their most recent earnings. Overall revenue was up almost eight percent and profit twelve. Like most defense contractors though the company is planning for rougher times ahead as the U.S. defense budget declines.

Rockwell is part of Boeing’s (BA) team bidding for the KC-X new aerial tanker and the CEO, Clay Jones, said as part of the earnings release that they expect the contract award to be delayed.

Expectations were that it would be announced early next month but there have been consistent rumors and stories that this will be pushed off at least a few months as the Air Force evaluates EADS’ (EADS:P) and Boeing’s submissions.

The Air Force has been trying to buy a new tanker to replace the aging KC-135 aircraft now for most of this century. The current competition represents the third attempt and the second using competitive bids.

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First Protest Filed for KC-X Competition

There has been plenty of expectations that the loser of the latest KC-X competition would file a protest. Boeing (BA) was able to overturn the award to Northrop Grumman (NOC) and EADS (EADS:P) in 2008 when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) upheld its protest of that contract. Now there has already been a protest of this round before the source selection has really got underway. The protester, too, is not one of the usual suspects but U.S. Aerospace (USAE) who announced that they were teaming with Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer Antonov for the multi-billion program to replace the KC-135 in use by the U.S. Air Force.

U.S. Aerospace is protesting the fact that the Air Force said their proposal was received late and will not be considered in the competition. The service has made clear that only the EADS and Boeing ones were received by the deadline of 2:00 PM on 9 July.

The upstart bidder says that their proposal was at the site thirty minutes prior to that time but that Air Force personnel deliberately delayed the courier preventing delivery until five minutes after the deadline. The Air Force is standing by its decision.

The KC-X has been an on-again-off-again program for most of this decade. The initial plan of a lease of 767 based aircraft from Boeing was thrown out amid convictions of U.S. Air Force and Boeing personnel for corruption. The second attempt as mentioned above was lost on protest. This third try looked fairly smooth once EADS committed to bid on their own until late June when the U.S. Aerospace proposal emerged. Now a source selection that is supposed to be complete in early November is facing a potential hiccup depending on how the GAO rules on U.S. Aerospace’s protest. The addition of a third proposal to evaluate may cause delays in the selection and award process.

KC-X just gets more interesting as time passes.

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Can U.S. Aerospace and Antonov Win?

The KC-X new aerial tanker program Request for Proposals (RFP) attracted a third bid this time around. U.S. Aerospace submitted one based on the Ukrainian made Antonov transport. The question that immediately comes to mind is can this team win, or will it be Boeing (BA) or EADS (EADS:P)?

Realistically the chances of this bid being selected are low. The companies had asked for a sixty day extension to work on their proposal. The Air Force already slipping the contract deadline one month to accommodate EADS refused the further two month slip. This would have pushed award into 2011 with the current planned date of mid-November this year already late enough. The U.S. has been trying to get a replacement tanker for the aging KC-135 since 2001.

U.S. Aerospace and its partner obviously felt their proposal could be improved with the extra two months but did go ahead an turn one in that they feel meets all of the Air Force requirements. At the same time in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) U.S. Aerospace makes clear that the Air Force could easily reject them.

The company writes “For any or all of these reasons, the Air Force may not select our bid, may disqualify our bid, or may refuse to consider it on the merits, or at all,” based on myriad factors. These include not meeting requirements, not having qualified sub-contractors, not having necessary facilities or capabilities and even missing the deadline. They didn’t do that turning one in on time.

Of course all of this could be standard “Forward Looking Statements” meant to make clear to anyone investing in their stock that they are being conservative in their estimates. The stock was trading at 18 cents at the close on Friday.

Certainly they have offered a cost effective approach. The Air Force must consider if it meets their requirements and they have the ability to produce the systems to the necessary schedule. Certainly stranger things have happened in defense contracting.

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SecDef Steps Up for EADS

The Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made clear that the Defense Department and the Air Force want some competition for the KC-X aerial tanker program. This is going to have to include EADS (EADS:P) against Boeing (BA) due to the requirements of the program. Gates stressed disappointment with those in Congress attempting to prevent U.S. companies working with EADS on their bid.

If there is going to be any competition for the third attempt to buy a replacement for the aging KC-135 aircraft it will have to include EADS. The only other potentially viable contender would be a Russian aircraft either based on the Ilyushin IL-78 Midas system or perhaps on the IL-96 wide body airliner. Having a Russian competitor would make the contest even more difficult then just one with EADS.

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