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Tanker Talk of Paris, No Answers

One topic has dominated conversations among the Americans at the Paris Air Show: the tanker program and just what Boeing really will do

At a press conference, senior Boeing officials spent much of their time trying to generate news but they may well have raised more questions than they answered. This may be due at least in part to the state of the competition -- no RFP out yet, not much clarity on requirements yet and questions about whether a split buy will really happen.

Boeing offered a new designation for its tanker: the 7A7. While Boeing clearly intended this to demonstrate the company's flexibility in responding to whatever requirements come forth from the Pentagon, several observers I spoke with after the press conference interpreted this as showing Boeing was more focused on offering the 777 since it appeared to mark a step away from the 767.

Some of this clearly verges on the metaphysic; trying to interpret what it is truly in the hearts of men. But Boeing's decision to offer either the 777 or the 767 does -- no matter what the company has tried to say -- raise a number of questions about its bid.

Here's what company officials said at the press conference. Most important, one of the company's top officials -- Pat Shanahan -- came in halfway through the press conference to declare that the company regarded the tanker competition as "equally important" as its premier product -- the 787 Dreamliner passenger plane. This means, company officials said later, that Boeing will commit whatever resources are necessary to production for either the 777 or the 767 should it win the tanker contract. The 777 is, of course, one of the most popular planes in the world and Boeing has a substantial backlog of orders, so breaking into commercial production is highly unlikely. The company might well build a parallel production line, as it did for the P-8A, which is based on the 737 airframe, officials said.

But the company has not done any wind tunnel testing for a 777 tanker or for prospective booms or pods, Dave Bowman, company VP for tankers, said in response to a reporter's question.

Still, Bowman said the company stands ready to deliver either the 767 or the 777, depending on what the RFP and conversations with Air Force officials indicate would be the best fit. Requirements for longer range and more fuel offload = 777. More flying from forward air bases and tactical flexibility = 767.

But Air Force officials must be a bit worried as they dissect the 767's evolution, especially in Italy. Boeing has faced serious problems with vibration -- or "flutter" -- from the plane's pods. I asked a Boeing official at the end of the press conference if the problem had been solved. "We've resolved most of that," the official said. The company has had a tiger team working the pod problem for many months and it appears they are making progress. Even a source at another company conceded that Boeing would fix it, though the cost in time and schedule might be high.

Since a split or dual buy appears to be the direction Congress will require to avoid any protest, Boeing may well be positioning the 777 as a complement to Northrop Grumman’s KC-45, a range of sources from both Boeing competitors and neutral industry observers here at the show said. Now we just to wait for the RFP to find out which way the boom will swing.

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