Wicker: Unfair tanker process disadvantaged Northrop Grumman-EADS - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Wicker: Unfair tanker process disadvantaged Northrop Grumman-EADS

Sen. Roger Wicker Sen. Roger Wicker

Report From Congress
By Senator Roger F. Wicker

On March 7, Mississippi and our gulf state neighbors learned that Northrop Grumman would not bid on the proposal to build next generation aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force. The tankers, which are used to refuel airplanes in midflight, would have been assembled in Mobile, Alabama, and could have created up to 2,000 direct jobs and many additional indirect jobs on the Gulf Coast, many of which would have been filled by Mississippians. The Northrop-EADS team was initially awarded the contract in 2008, but its chief rival, Boeing, contested the decision and touched off an extended and politically-charged acquisition process.

Unfair Bidding Process

In response to Boeing's protest, the Department of Defense canceled the award and created new contract requirements, clearly stacking the deck in favor of Boeing's smaller, lighter, and less capable plane. It is hard to blame Northrop Grumman for choosing not to participate in a process which had set the company up for failure. It is unfortunate that the Pentagon revoked the 2008 award and then tilted the playing field, particularly for such a significant defense contract. It is worth noting that the aircraft Northrop Grumman-EADS proposed for this competition has been selected over the Boeing tanker in the last five consecutive international competitions.

As a result of this unfair process, Americans cannot be certain that their tax dollars are being spent efficiently and on the best product. The contract proceedings also have done a disservice to our national defense. The taxpayers and the men and women who will fly the next generation of tankers deserve the best equipment. Unfortunately, I do not believe the current process will achieve this goal.

I am especially disappointed that thousands of American workers across the country – including those in Mississippi and Alabama – were not given a fair chance to compete for next generation aerospace jobs. The construction of these tankers on the Gulf Coast would have benefited all of Mississippi by drawing suppliers and development to the region and fostering a new aerospace manufacturing corridor in the southeastern United States. This would have been positive news to the many defense-related businesses across Mississippi, from the Tennessee state line down to the Gulf Coast.

Thriving Aerospace Industry

Despite this lost opportunity, Mississippi is still home to a thriving aerospace industry. The Gulf Coast is a prime location for defense and aerospace companies because we are centrally located to markets across the United States and have access to global markets through numerous air and deep water ports. Northrop Grumman's Moss Point facility builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are currently being used by the Navy. The Coast is also already home to world class research and development firms, advanced aerospace installations, key NASA facilities like Stennis Space Center, and critical commercial and defense manufacturers.

This work is not just limited to the Coast. In Forest, over 700 Mississippians are employed by Raytheon building radars for fighter jets. American Eurocopter in Columbus builds helicopters for the U.S. Army and for the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Patrol. Employing nearly 300 skilled Mississippians, Eurocopter just delivered, on budget and on time, the 100th Light Utility Helicopter for the Army. This achievement is a testament to the quality of the aerospace and defense industry workforce in our state.

Another Columbus-based defense contractor, Aurora, builds UAVs, which are used by the Department of Defense to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. Stark Aviation, which employs about 100 workers in Columbus, builds medium altitude UAVs for the military. These planes help protect our combat troops and are also used to combat drug trafficking in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Further north in Iuka, ATK Aerospace Structures manufactures parts and frames for Airbus planes. Presently, the company employs about 160 Mississippians, and its workforce is projected to grow by 800 over the next eight years. GE Aviation operates a facility in Batesville, where they manufacture and assemble fan blades and hardware for GE's newest commercial jet engines.

With this type of aerospace and aviation activity already happening in our state, it is clear that Mississippi has positioned itself as an attractive location for companies in this sector to do business. The tanker decision was a frustrating setback, but there are plenty of reasons for our state to be excited about its future. With our impressive track record and proven and skilled workforce, I believe Mississippi will continue to flourish as an aerospace corridor and a center for defense manufacturing.

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