Monday, June 30, 2008

KC-X - The Next Chaper?

As written here:
This ruling is serious-as-a-heart-attack stuff. In particular, consider the fourth point:

The Air Force conducted misleading and unequal discussions with Boeing, by informing Boeing that it had fully satisfied a key performance parameter objective relating to operational utility, but later determined that Boeing had only partially met this objective, without advising Boeing of this change in the agency's assessment and while continuing to conduct discussions with Northrop Grumman relating to its satisfaction of the same key performance parameter objective.

As that band member from Spinal Tap would say, “That’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?” It isn’t. That overlong sentence doesn’t highlight a procedural error or a minor oversight. It indicates deliberate favoritism for the Northrop/EADS bid. There are three possible explanations:

1. The GAO decision was politically compromised. Conceivable, but the GAO has an unblemished history of independent (at times hypercritical) thinking. They don’t often uphold defense contract protests—just 20-25% of them. The last time they upheld a major protest (CSAR-X) it was against Boeing’s contract win.

2. The Air Force procurement department has turned monstrously incompetent. Their recent track record isn’t great, and any large bureaucracy can lose its way. But again, that fourth point goes well beyond incompetence. It indicates bias.

3. Senator John McCain successfully politicized this contract, determining its outcome.

The likeliest is a combination of the second and third explanations. The Air Force officials making this decision watched McCain wreck several Air Force officials’ careers. They watched McCain make life miserable for the service and attack its priorities, especially the F-22. They watched him consistently work against the Boeing tanker, or at least in favor of the Northrop/EADS tanker (under the guise of a level playing field). As a result, some Air Force procurement officials might well have worked to favor the Northrop/EADS bid. Perhaps it was pushed on them from the OSD level. From the Air Force standpoint, choosing the KC-30 might have been an easy way to avoid pain. The GAO ruling made them look incompetent, but they had solid fear-based reasons to take this path, despite the risk of being caught. Who knows? Perhaps the Air Force wanted to be caught.

That, of course, leaves us with the matter of McCain. We know that McCain influenced the tanker selection process against Boeing with multiple letters to Deputy SecDef Gordon England and SecDef Robert Gates. We also know that McCain, for good and/or bad reasons, stopped the original Boeing tanker lease deal from going ahead. We know that people in McCain’s office have also worked as EADS lobbyists. At least one lobbied for EADS while working for McCain. Finally, we have the GAO document, which accuses the Air Force of favoritism and bias, yet doesn’t cite any rationale or motive for this bias. There’s really just one.

So far, no one has been able to connect these four data points and prove that McCain and his lobbyist associates pushed the Air Force into actively favoring the Northrop/EADS plane. McCain’s office has very skillfully maintained plausible deniability.
Well, I think we've established that the USAF acquisitions folks have lost their way pretty badly. However, stating that McCain overtly or tacitly influenced the decision kicks things up to a whole 'nother level. As Stephen Trimble puts it:

That's a very remarkable -- and politically explosive -- analysis. Aboulafia appears to be asking: 1) Did McCain steer the KC-X contract requirements to favor Northrop Grumman's bid, and 2) Were McCain's actions improperly influenced by EADS lobbyists?

"Politically explosive" is an understatement. This would be big news at any time, but can you think of a better cudgel for Obama to smack McCain with? Political meddling in military affairs, putting the warfighter at risk, AND sending jobs overseas, not to mention the general corruption and lobbyist angle. Of course, as the first link states, no one has been able to connect the data points...yet. If I was Obama, I would be working hard to do just that.