Air Force has a whole lot of explaining to do

This isn’t over yet.

The U.S. Air Force’s stunning announcement Friday that it had chosen a European manufacturer over the Boeing Co. to supply 179 aerial refueling tankers raised far more questions than it answered. Boeing and Congress, among others, must demand that every such question be addressed thoroughly.

Beyond the obvious “What the #$@&! were they thinking?[“”], we’d like to know:

n Why would the U.S. military hand Europe a huge economic stimulus package? Especially to a company — EADS and its Airbus subsidiary — that the U.S. government has repeatedly accused of taking unfair and illegal government subsidies that allow it to launch new commercial lines free of the market risks Boeing is used to taking.

By handing Airbus a $35 billion victory, the Air Force will also give it a better competitive foothold in the commercial aviation market by helping it establish a manufacturing operation within our own shores — in Mobile, Ala. That’s where some engineering and assembly of the Airbus tanker would take place, but make no mistake: the bulk of the KC-45A will be built in Europe. These will not be American planes. That’s why in Paris, EADS CEO Louis Gallois is proclaiming the deal a “fabulous victory.”

n Given the dollar’s weakness against the Euro, how is buying a European product cost-effective for U.S. taxpayers?

n How can we be sure that this isn’t a “makeup call” from the 2003 tanker scandal involving Boeing and Air Force officials?

n How did the Air Force’s recent decision to change criteria it used to assess rival bids affect the process?

n Size apparently mattered, according the Air Force’s description of Airbus’ larger A330 platform. Accordingly, was Boeing given ample opportunity to base its tanker on the larger 777 rather than the 767?

n Creation of U.S. jobs wasn’t a factor in the decision, Air Force officials insisted Friday. EADS and its business partner, Northrop Grumman, apparently thought it would, though. How else to explain the effort to sweeten its bid by having final assembly take place in Mobile? Without that carrot, does anybody really believe the decision would have gone the way it did?

This is one of the largest U.S. military contracts ever awarded, and it’s probably just the first of three similar orders for tankers over several decades. A strong, experienced and innovative American company with a highly skilled American workforce shouldn’t have its bid tossed aside in favor of a foreign competitor without a thorough, compelling and convincing explanation.

We look forward to that.

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