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Originally published June 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 25, 2007 at 10:54 AM

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Paris Air Show

Northrop confident on tanker

The contentious contract battle between Boeing and an EADS-Northrop Grumman partnership over the Air Force's huge air-to-air refueling tanker...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

PARIS — The contentious contract battle between Boeing and an EADS-Northrop Grumman partnership over the Air Force's huge air-to-air refueling tanker won't be decided until October.

But the Northrop venture has already ordered and begun building the first Airbus plane that will be converted into a U.S. tanker, company officials are announcing today.

"We took the bet," said Northrop vice president Paul Meyer. "We're going to be as aggressive as we can."

The move to put money down for a jet it may never need is a bit of a PR stunt, but nonetheless underscores one key difference between the two rivals for the year's biggest defense contract.

Boeing's offering revamps the standard Everett-built 767-200 jet with bigger wings for the $30 billion-plus contract.

By contrast, EADS and Northrop would modify existing A330 aircraft exactly like those built on the assembly line in Toulouse, France. Meyer said such a tanker could be delivered to the Air Force by the end of the year.

As the Paris Air Show begins today, Meyer's team will display at the Le Bourget airfield the first A330 tanker it has already built, one destined for the Royal Australian Air Force in 2009 after more than a year of stringent flight tests.

The 179-tanker order pits the 767 against an A330 to be assembled in Mobile, Ala., by Los Angeles-based Northrop and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence & Space (EADS).

In the halls of Congress, jobs in the South will be weighed against jobs in the Puget Sound region — more than 5,000, according to Boeing military-unit chief Jim Albaugh.

In an interview Saturday, Meyer pushed his tanker as an American jet, even though its parts will come from France.

"How can Boeing say it's about American jobs?" he said, given that its jets are heavily outsourced and the 787 takes offshore work to new heights. "In this case, Airbus is bringing jobs to the U.S."

The Airbus assembly plant in Mobile will employ some 500 people from Alabama and Mississippi, Meyer said. The adjacent Northrop assembly plant will employ another 500. Design work will provide about 500 Northrop engineering jobs in Melbourne, Fla.

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Meyer said the A330 is more efficient than the 767 because it's "more modern." And because it is considerably bigger, he said, it can carry more fuel and also be used to transport troops and equipment.

"Given that you are going to buy a platform for the next 50 years, how much flexibility do you want?" he said. "We have a tanker that, should they decide to use it for something else, it has the designed-in features."

In a briefing Sunday, Boeing's Albaugh challenged Northrop's assertions of the Airbus jet's greater capabilities.

But first he had to handle questions about problems that have delayed the similar 767 tankers built for the Italian and Japanese militaries.

The first Italian tanker won't be delivered until 2008, three years later than originally planned, after Boeing had to fix wing-vibration problems caused by attached fuel pods.

Delivery of the first Japanese tanker is also delayed, probably until later this year.

The Japanese tanker had problems with the camera system that allows visual operation of the fuel boom connecting the tanker to a fighter jet; it wasn't working adequately at night. And the jet's communications systems were plagued by noise.

Albaugh said those issues are on their way to being solved, and the lessons learned will benefit the U.S. Air Force tanker program.

"What we've gone through with the Japanese and Italian tankers is darn good risk reduction for the U.S. offering," Albaugh said.

Dismissing the advantages claimed for the A330 as "a bunch of assertions" that remain untested, Albaugh said, "We're going to be able to demonstrate that we have done already much of what goes into the 767 on these two airplanes."

He spelled out what's at stake for the Puget Sound area.

"There are 5,000 or 6,000 767 jobs on the commercial line [in Everett] right now," he said. A win would preserve those jobs "for another 179 airplanes" beyond the short commercial run that remains.

That extension would be about a dozen years at the rate the military wants to take the tankers.

(Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale cited a higher number, "approximately 9,000 jobs" in the state.)

Albaugh said a win would also preserve about 1,000 Boeing military jobs at its tanker-finishing facility in Wichita, Kan. and would add about 1,000 high-end jobs in Boeing's military division in the Puget Sound region.

One distinct difference that emerged in the presentations is the approach to building the tanker. Airbus will deliver an off-the-shelf A330 to Alabama. Boeing will build a very specialized 767 in Everett.

Meyer said the Airbus/Northrop offering starts as an A330 straight off the commercial assembly line, a factor he said will reduce cost.

The first sections of the airplane entered the assembly jig in Toulouse over the weekend.

"We're showing we can buy it as a commodity and then modify it for military use at minimal risk," Meyer said.

In contrast, the Boeing tanker will differ from any commercial variant of the jet.

Its tanker will have a modified 767-200 freighter fuselage, a 767-400 cockpit, and a 767-300 wing with -400 flaps. It's "a unique 767, in essence," said Boeing Vice President Chris Raymond.

Its tanker will have a modified 767-200 freighter fuselage, with a much bigger 767-400 wing and a 767-400 cockpit.

What's clear from the battle of words is that this enormous competition is on a knife edge, with airplane capabilities, tanker experience and politics each looming large as the Air Force ponders its decision.

Most people in the Puget Sound region think Boeing is very much the favorite. But John Young, chief executive of EADS North America, thinks the contest is closer than that. At an EADS reception Friday, he estimated the chances of beating Boeing at 50-50.

In other news from Paris, container ships approaching Seattle from the Pacific may spot some low-flying 737s in the next couple of weeks.

Tony Parasida, head of the Poseidon anti-submarine airplane based on the Renton-built 737, said in a briefing that Boeing will be flying a demonstration for the Indian Navy to show the plane can indeed perform its "low and slow" sub-hunting mission.

Boeing hopes India may place the first overseas order for the airplane.

Information in this article, originally published June 18, 2007, was corrected July 25, 2007. A June 18 article from the Paris Air Show said Boeing has offered a much bigger wing on its proposed 767 U.S. Air Force air refueling tanker, specifically a 767-400 wing on a 767-200 fuselage. That information came from a Boeing vice president speaking at a briefing in Paris. Boeing now says that he "misspoke" and that the tanker wing will be a 767-300 freighter wing, which has the same smaller span as a 767-200, but with 767-400 flaps. The point being made in the story -- that the Boeing tanker will differ radically from any commercial 767 variant -- remains valid.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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