Yesterday I posted an item regarding writer David Axe’s reflections on the Pentagon’s blogger outreach program. I’ll follow up today with his observations about a recent Boeing-sponsored junket for journalists, which was designed to promote the company’s KC-767 tanker. As Axe recently explained on his personal website, that plane is
squaring off against the Northrop Grumman KC-30 for a $40-billion contract to provide 180 planes to the Air Force to begin replacing its 50-year-old KC-135 Stratotankers. The Air Force calls the contest KC-X, and it is their number one weapons-buying priority at a time when money is seriously short.
Traditionally it was a fairly small circle of defense insiders and key figures in Congress who influenced how federal military contracts were awarded. But in recent years competition for big contracts has grown more heated and that circle has widened. Now, many more members of Congress are part of the process, and today defense contractors routinely run media campaigns in order to influence lawmakers and the general public. (Hence those full-page ads for various weapons programs that are regularly placed in Capitol Hill publications like The Hill and Roll Call.)
There is fierce competition between Boeing and Northrop on the tanker bid. Northrop has partnered with EADS, a European corporation formed in 2000 from the merger of French, German, and Spanish aerospace firms, and for Boeing, the stakes are particularly high. The company’s civilian business is strong but its defense business is on shaky ground. “Six years ago Boeing almost scored a non-competitive $20-billion lease deal for tankers, but an ethics scandal derailed the plan,” Axe has noted on his blog. “It turned out that a key Air Force procurement official, Darlene Druyun, had been offered a job in exchange for setting up an unnecessarily expensive lease.”
It was within this context that Boeing–which Axe said spends $2 million annually on its KC-767 media campaign–flew a group of about a dozen defense reporters to Everett, Washington, where the company has a factory. In addition to Defense Technology International, for which Axe writes, reporters from The Hill, Reuters, NPR, Inside the Air Force, the Weekly Standard, and other media outlets were represented.
Boeing flew the journalists to Washington state on a business jet of the type typically used by corporate CEOs. The jet was equipped with a DVD player, showers, and a queen-sized bed, where, Axe told me, Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard took a nap. Boeing refused to accept payment for the plane ride, but suggested that media outlets could, if they liked, contribute an amount equal to the cost of the flight to charity. Axe says NPR took that step, but he did not know if any other outlets did.
Upon their arrival, the journalists were whisked off to a backyard gathering at the lakeside home of Mary Foerster, Boeing’s vice president of communications. Axe said the food–grilled salmon, fried chicken, and corn bread–was first-rate and there was a generous open bar as well. A number of Boeing officials were on hand, but attention was mostly focused on food and drink. “There didn’t,” Axe told me, “appear to be much journalism taking place.”
Afterwards the media crew was driven to a hotel, where Boeing had arranged a special corporate rate of about $100 per night. The next day all were brought to Boeing’s plant for a guided tour, which included a rally by employees in support of the company’s tanker bid. Boeing managers were on hand, but they were surrounded by local TV crews that had also been invited by Boeing and thus could not take many questions. Members of the Washington state congressional delegation were also at the plant, and were briefly made available for interviews.
Then it was time to fly home on the Boeing jet, with a meal of beef cutlet and potatoes and chocolate cake for dessert. “The whole thing had a buddy-buddy atmosphere,” Axe said. “There was a sheer shamelessness to the whole thing and I willingly participated.”
Incidentally, it’s not clear what Goldfarb was doing on the trip (besides napping), as he long ago made his decision clear regarding the tanker matter. “Airbus is a European company, and worse, it’s closely connected to the French government,” Goldfarb wrote earlier this year. “[T]he folks in Congress can find a way to award the contract to Boeing without the appearance of any impropriety. But how could they explain sending our tax dollars to France?” Truly, this is a man who knows the taste of freedom fries.
Being invited on junkets of this sort is fairly common for defense trade reporters, who often are sympathetic to the industry’s perspective. Last year, soon after joining Defense Tech International (part of the Aviation Week family of publications), Axe was invited on a tour to “learn” about Deepwater, a Coast Guard program jointly managed by Lockheed Martin and Northrop. In essence, those two firms were hired to tell the Coast Guard how to modernize, what to buy, and where to buy it.
Not surprisingly, Lockheed and Northrop ended up providing much off the necessary “modernization” equipment. As a result, Deepwater has been a costly boondoggle. For example, Deepwater recommended that the Coast Guard stretch the hulls of its patrol boats from 110 feet to 123 feet, work that Northrop was picked to perform. But the first time the patrol boats were deployed the hulls buckled. Meanwhile, Deepwater awarded Lockheed a contract to build the electronics for the patrol boats. As the hull fiasco was unfolding, a Lockheed whistleblower named Michael DeKort stepped forward to reveal that the electronics gear the company was providing was riddled with flaws. All of this led to congressional hearings, Inspector General reports, and a Coast Guard decision to scrap Deepwater.
Axe went on the junket before the scope of the disaster was apparent, and before the companies and the Coast Guard had parted ways. He toured a Lockheed plant in New Jersey and while the frills weren’t as lavish as those on the recent Boeing junket, the same buddy-buddy atmosphere prevailed. Later, Axe spoke with Coast Guard officials (who also provided him with an exciting helicopter ride) to get what he thought at the time was the “other side” of the story. “It’s hard to write truthful defense trade stories because the company and government sources are in bed together,” Axe says. “The end result [of the New Jersey junket] was that I wrote the worst story of my life.”
Which leads back to Boeing’s tanker junket. Boeing, Axe said, might not have convinced everyone who went on the trip that it should win the contract. But it did perpetuate the idea that there are only two options: Boeing or Northrop. As Axe explains, there’s a third choice.
“All the Air Force is doing,” he said, “is buying a slightly better version of the current vehicle. But the supposed need to buy new tankers now is not well documented. There hasn’t been a tanker crash for decades and the current planes have a 90 percent reliability rate, which is good for a military plane. Maybe we don’t need to make a decision now. In ten years, robotic tankers will be a real possibility–the technology is already there.”
“Boeing is probably going to win the tanker competition,” said Axe. “All that accomplishes is that the Air Force will be feeding it money for the next few decades.”