Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Boeing "Surprised" in Tanker Duel? NOT!

Lockheed Martin has an internal news bulletin that summarizes a lot of the aerospace news of the day. In today’s edition was an Av Week blurb about the KC-45, titled “USAF says fencing off data kept tanker competition fair”. It was interesting enough to cause me to look up the full article titled “USAF On The KC-X Defensive A Year Ago”, which is an interesting twist on the situation in itself. My curiosity paid off because the article provided some real insight into the complaints that Boeing is using as the basis for protesting the award of the KC-X contract to Northrop Grumman.

It has the first details I’ve seen about the “Northrop-era” model used to evaluate the tankers. ‘Northrop’ as in ‘before Northrop Grumman’…as in 1980’s Northrop. A model developed for the now-defunct Strategic Air Command to help plan tanker ops in the 1980s (more about this in a second).

The Combined Mating and Ranging Planning System (CMARPS) was designed for the Strategic Air Command in the 1980s and is now used by planners in Air Mobility Command. It helps operators assess how many tankers are required for a variety of missions, where they can be based and how many receivers -- fighters and intelligence aircraft, for example -- can be serviced by the available refuelers. It is one of various modeling systems used by the Air Force.
In the article, Boeing claims difficulty in learning how to use and actually using the model. It would seem to me, that since Boeing is the ONLY tanker contractor the AF has had for years and the dominant contractor for decades, that they should have been very familiar with the model if they cared at all about understanding how their Customer was using it for any number of reasons like, oh I don’t know…maybe Product/Logistics Support and Sustainability Engineering?

Here’s another tidbit about the model, per a teleconference with reporters today hosted by Northrop Grumman’s Washington office and the KC-45 Program Manager, Paul Meyer, the model was developed by a company that Northrop Grumman BOUGHT only about six years ago (
click here to listen to the MP3 file – model info @ approx 3 minutes). Mr. Meyer went further and pointed out that his team had no contact with the part of NG that developed the model, and that Boeing had a lot more experience with the model than his team. One wonders now if Boeing had communications or managerial barriers that prevented the part of Boeing familiar with the model from supporting the Boeing bid.

There was a wealth of other information provided in the teleconference that knocked down Boeing’s claims and provides some concrete cost/price numbers as well. I would encourage anyone to listen to it.

The Av Week piece also brings up Boeing’s complaints about ‘changes’ to the contract:

Two “major combat operations” scenarios were tweaked to add additional ramp space in the Cmarps [sic] model that doesn’t actually exist. This allowed for the KC-30 to gain enough access at a “priority base,” according to Boeing officials, that it otherwise would have been too large to achieve. Limited ramp space can make operations with larger aircraft more difficult, because of tight parking and ground maneuver space…Space between parked aircraft, however,was another change made by the Air Force during the competition, Boeing says. The service cut the space between parked tankers in half, to 25 ft., according to Boeing. The company says this change doesn’t accurately reflect operations in the field as articulated in the Mobility Capability Study 2005, a classified assessment of mobility needs by the Pentagon. The Air Force countered in its March 29 [2007] letter, saying that the shift to 25 ft. separation between parked aircraft “accurately reflects contingency operations at constrained employment bases.”
Hmmm. So Boeing continued clinging to the idea that they had a larger ramp space advantage than they actually did have, because they continued to view the requirement from a Standard Operational Procedures point of view and not taking into account the AF’s experience with “contingency operations at constrained employment bases” for their final proposal. –even though these changes were made BEFORE the last proposal was submitted.

The last change mentioned in the article, but one that apparently happened 4-5 months earlier than the others, involved ‘turn-around’ times:

Another Air Force shift in evaluating the criteria was the use of a “standard planning ground time,” which reflects the time needed to service a refueler on the ground, load it up with more gas and send it out for another mission. Boeing says that in November 2006, the Air Force asked the competitors to calculate ground turnaround time based on a fixed number…..
This obviously caused Boeing some consternation:
Boeing naturally saw this as a strength for its proposal, since a smaller tanker would take less time to refuel on the ground. The Air Force, however, switched that metric, implementing a standard turnaround time of 4 hrs. and 15 mins. for both proposals …..
Even though the change was made before the final proposal was submitted, and therefore clearly not in violation of contracting rules and laws, was the change warranted? Evidently so:
…“Upon review of current operations, the Air Force determined that there are many factors that impact turn time and overshadow differences in ground fuel servicing times, including, for example, combat tasking ground crew and spare parts availability [and] local constraints,” the service says. “As these examples indicate, these factors have little or no relationship to the aircraft characteristics. Because of these variables, the Air Force must use a standard planning ground time for its tanker fleet.”
So before the final proposals were submitted and over a year before source selection, the AF changed a planning factor for turnaround time based upon real world experience that reduced Boeing’s edge in tanker refuel times. From this article we can conclude that recent real-world operations gave the AF more concrete criteria for spacing and turnaround times to use in evaluating the proposals and this experience benefitted the NG proposal.
Aside from the above, we also learn that the article’s title was highlighting the point that Boeing had every reason not think this contract was a slam-dunk more than a year ago. So much for the feigned ‘shock’ and surprised indignation on their part and so much for the outrage over ‘changes’ coming out of Boeing’s PR machine.

The revelation that Boeing had concerns about how their tanker might measure up even before the final proposal was submitted also calls even more into question their decision to push the small 767 version (vs. a stretched -300 or -400). Boeing’s talk of offering a 777 if ‘they had only known’ doesn’t hold water: it’s probably TOO big "as is" and they didn’t have a shortened version on the shelf to offer by design: they consciously decided years ago to stretch the 767 instead of shrink the 777 for the relevant commercial market segment.

In a just world, Boeing’s protest is toast. Let’s hope it is a just world.

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