Procurement: Buy American Or Else

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September 24, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is under a lot of pressure not to make a mess of its second attempt to select a new aerial refueling aircraft to replace their half century old KC-135s. The air force says the problem last time around was lack of sufficient in-house technical experts. That problem has been solved by hiring over a hundred additional experts. But the real problem (choosing a politically acceptable supplier) is not acknowledged. There are two aircraft in contention, the Boeing KC-767 and Airbus MRTT/KC-30. The big problem is that the superior aircraft is made by a European firm (AirBus) which has been steadily gaining on the largest commercial aircraft manufacturer on the planet, the U.S. firm Boeing. Even though AirBus promised to do most of the work (and spend most of the money) in the United States, selecting the Boeing KC-767 means more jobs for Americans, and that means more votes for current members of Congress, in several key states.

When it comes to military equipment, especially high priced items, nations always try to build it themselves, even if it costs more, or results in an inferior weapon. Thus many European nations are buying the new European designed and Built Typhoon jet fighter, while other European nations are buying cheaper, and equally capable, American aircraft. Officially, everyone agrees that the best thing to do is buy a better, or cheaper, weapon from an ally, when such a deal is available. But in practice, politics (nationalism and local jobs) takes precedence. And so it will during the next attempt to select the American made KC-767 over the superior, but European made, KC-30. The air force is, unofficially, under tremendous pressure to "do the right thing", and make it look convincing. The AirBus lawyers are not ready to let this happen, unless something is officially, or unofficially, offered to them to assuage the pain.

 


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