:: May 2004 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Kurt Vonnegut Wannabes,

Know any frustrated novelists? You know the type—they dream of writing the Great American Novel, the next Catch-22, something richly textured yet darkly comic. Then, like me, they stop dreaming and go back to their wage-slave day jobs. I can’t write that novel, but I do know the perfect collection of characters and ingredients for a great dark comedy. Topic: the Boeing Tanker Deal. The list looks like this:

Let’s start with Boeing. It was supposed to be A Simple Plan. They had a threatened 767 line in a depressed jetliner market, and the Air Force would eventually need tankers anyway. Cooperate (or perhaps collude) with the Air Force to find a way to get them the planes without taking cash away from fighter procurement. Grease the skids with re-election cash for key congressmen. As the saying goes, it was Win-Win. Unless, that is, things go horribly Wrong-Wrong, and they Lose-Lose. Boeing and the Air Force didn’t reckon with…

John McCain. He’s a war hero and rumored (if unlikely) VP candidate. But he’s also a self-proclaimed reformer, a high maintenance job title. Attacking the “waste, fraud, and abuse” of the tanker deal is a good way to claim the meaningless reformer title, particularly if he can keep the battle going indefinitely by not saying what he actually wants. Meanwhile, he also supports the Healthy Forest Initiative, a pork-centric concept providing hundreds of millions in payouts to lumber companies for the privilege of chopping down our dangerously tree-filled national forests. But he really wants that tanker corrosion data now, dammit.

Boeing is now communicating directly with McCain via CEO Harry Stonecipher. Before you start writing this part of the novel as a gargantuan clash of egos from hell, consider this: McCain spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton. Stonecipher was CEO of Sundstrand. If that’s not common ground, I don’t know what is.

Then there’s the Air Force. At times, they’ve implied that Boeing hasn’t done enough to support the tanker deal. So, it’s a high priority for the service, and they’re willing to budget cash to make this a procurement program, right? Nope. As long as their fighters, particularly F/A-22, are under budget pressure, the service won’t actually divert money to some lower priority like tankers. They’d trade family members for a better shot at F/A-22 funding. And, they want tankers only if they can get them without asking for cash, via a lease deal, with the money added by Congress. This explains John McCain’s smartest tactical move ever, appearing on Meet The Press and implying the F/A-22 might be an Iraq War budget casualty (see In military terms, that’s called taking the fight to the enemy. And to be fair to Senator McCain, he has a point—the Air Force wants tankers only if someone else pays.

On to EADS/Airbus. The Air Force suspects they might be guilty of feeding ammo to the tanker deals’ enemies. But it does indeed look like the Air Force cooperated with Boeing to make sure the 767 won, while using EADS’s A330 bid as a stalking horse. And remember: because tanker money needs to be added by congress, all hope lies with generous congressmen with large machinist constituencies (in Seattle, not Toulouse). But EADS is going to try again, as soon as the Air Force re-starts the competition. Meanwhile, Charlie Brown’s nemesis Lucy has taken up a new spot on Connecticut Avenue, inviting EADS executives to run and kick the football while she holds it in place.

Congress. Representatives and senators who are not FOBs (Friends Of Boeing) are haunted by the same nightmare: a world where each budget cycle merely involves rubber stamping a check. No friendly plus-ups for pals, no enemy-smiting minus-downs. No pork-related budget power at all. They’d just make payments for a lease deal signed by some damn fool years ago. As the congressmen wake, they think: “must…stop…dark vision…from…becoming reality….” and then hit the alarm clock snooze button and go back to sleep. The best way for them to stop this budgetary disempowerment: pretend the leasing idea was invented by greedy space aliens. They feign ignorance of the whole concept, which resembles a house mortgage. Tough to do while keeping a straight face.

Back to Boeing, let’s throw in Darleen Druyun and Mike Sears. They might not have acted alone (hell, neither did Lee Harvey Oswald, but nobody wants to talk about that). Still, these guys should have done what every executive does under their arms at 5 PM as they leave the office for a cocktail reception: administer the smell test. This inexplicable instance of ethical incompetence leaves Ms. Druyun with a plea bargain felony and a GS pension. Mike Sears, by contrast, retires with millions of dollars, burdened merely by many to-be-pulped copies of his aborted book, Soaring Through Turbulence. (Aspiring novelists get extra credit for placing Ms. Druyun in Club Fed with Martha Stewart as cellmate.)

Back to Congress. This episode could produce the inevitable anti-revolving door hand-wringing episode by politicians. They’ll promise to do something, and then realize that they can’t. Why? Consider the fundamentals: government jobs pay a fraction of industry job salaries. Therefore, either (1) accept the current revolving door, or (2) accept that industry will get good people while government gets poorly-paid hacks (there is a third alternative—pay government officials much higher wages—but only Singapore does this and it would be politically difficult here).

Like most dark tales, this story lacks a “they all lived happily ever after” ending. The only thing worse than a dysfunctional weapons procurement system is a dysfunctional weapons procurement system that doesn’t actually procure any weapons. Without a tanker order the 767 line will die in a few years, leaving the Air Force in a quandary about what to do for a KC-135 replacement. Boeing lost a huge opportunity, not only to secure an indefinite $2-3 billion annual revenue stream, but to prove that a civil/military aerospace hybrid is in fact a good corporate structure. The only victor is Airbus/EADS, which has taken much of the tanker export market with its UK and Australia wins, but the Europeans still don’t have much of a shot with the only market that matters.

Anyway, there you have it—the greatest comic novel not yet written. Go write it. The characters were the easy part; the tough part is finding a resolution. Better still, show me a hero. They’re hard to find.

May’s supplement, by the way, includes updates of the C-130, Hawk, A300/310, P-3, most of what Sikorsky builds, and all of what Fairchild Dornier built. Enjoy.

Yours, ‘Til Hollywood Options The Movie Rights,

Richard Aboulafia


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006