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EADS Won’t Stand in Boeing’s Way on KC-X Tanker Win

European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS) announced on March 4, 2011, that it will not protest the award to archrival Boeing in a decade-long, multi-billion dollar contest to build air-refueling aircraft for the U.S. Air Force. “It’s time to put the interests of the warfighter first, so we’re stepping aside,” said Ralph Crosby, chairman of EADS North America.

Analysts in Washington had speculated that a protest by EADS might seek to overturn the contract award and further delay delivery of the aircraft. Boeing will now be able to proceed with the $35 billion effort under the KC-X program to assemble 179 KC-46A tankers, derived from the Boeing 767-200, to replace Eisenhower-era KC-135 Stratotankers, also built by Boeing. The selection of the Boeing aircraft was announced Feb. 24, 2011.

While EADS is expected to gain considerable goodwill by stepping aside, it left the fray only after charging that the KC-X decision was made primarily on the basis of price. Crosby said that Boeing’s $20.6 billion bid dramatically undercut the $22.6 billion offer submitted by EADS, which had proposed building a tanker modeled around the Airbus A330-200. Boeing’s “extremely low-ball bid,” as Crosby described it, won the contest but places Boeing under enormous pressure to avoid cost overruns.

Some in Washington liked the EADS aircraft better because it is newer, larger, more mature, and equipped with a new refueling boom that has been tested under practical circumstances. “In the end the tanker with the greatest capability wasn’t selected,” Mr. Crosby said.

Had it won the KC-X nod, EADS had planned to assemble the Airbus tanker at the former Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, Ala. Several opportunities to bring an aircraft assembly facility to Brookley have failed in recent years, but Mayor Sam Jones says the city is still trying. While EADS’ concession is “a major blow” in the short term, Jones said, it doesn’t mean that no Airbus tanker will ever roll out of a factory door in Alabama.

Later in this decade, the Air Force is expected to conduct a new KC-Y tanker competition to replace remaining KC-135s. In the next decade the service also expects a KC-Z program to replace the KC-10 Extender dual-role tanker-transport. Allowing Boeing to proceed with KC-X – while under pressure to keep costs down – does not preclude EADS from participating in KC-Y or KC-Z.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...