Mar 03 2008

Air Force awards contract worth billions in Alabama

Montgomery Advertiser

The Air Force's decision to award a contract worth $30 billion-$40 billion over 10 to 15 years to build 179 refueling tankers in Mobile will have an enormous impact on Alabama, an impact that could be felt as far as Montgomery.

"To say this is a great day for Alabama is a monumental understatement," Gov. Bob Riley said Friday. "This will go down in history as one of our greatest days."

The contract to Northrop Grumman and its Paris-based partner, European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., to build the Air Force's KC-X Aerial Refueling Tanker could create an estimated 2,000 jobs.

Although it's too early to tell what impact a contract like that could have on Montgomery, the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce isn't ruling out that it may have one.

"It is such a huge contract that it could have suppliers all the way up here," said Joe Greene, vice president of military affairs for the Chamber. "We are not sure what kind of impact it might have."

The effect on Montgomery may not be known, but there is no question about the impact the contract will have on the state.

"This contract will change the landscape of south Alabama," said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa. "Our state is on a roll economically and the tanker contract adds to the growing momentum.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, called it a decision that is not just a huge investment in the state, but "a clear endorsement of our state's workforce."

Supporters of the Northrop/EADS plan said it could put Mobile in the same league with Seattle, where Boeing builds large aircraft, and Toulouse, France, where EADS makes the Airbus.

"There are only two places in the world where large airplanes are built: Seattle, Washington and Toulouse, France. Now, there will be a third: Mobile, Alabama," Riley said.

Riley and the state's senators and congreessmen made a point to talk about the unified recruiting effort that brought the contract to the state and the hard work that went into it.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, former commander of Air University and a Korean War fighter ace, wasn't discounting the hard work, but said he believes the deciding factor in the Air Force's decision undoubtedly came down to what was best for the Air Force.

"The Air Force goes through a long and grueling process on that with no political favoritism," he said, "I know they picked what they thought was the best operational aircraft to meet in-flight refueling requirements.

"I think they made a great choice. I'm sure it was made on the merits of the case."

Indeed, on Friday, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne wasn't talking nearly as much about what the announcement meant for Alabama as what it meant for the Air Force.

He said while U.S. airmen were performing admirably defending America's interests throughout the world, they needed help -- help that this contract could at least partially provide.

"... We cannot expect them to forever defend our national interests with our aging aircraft," he said. "Our Air Force aircraft have an average age of 25 years. And the KC-135 fleet, with some over 50 years old, is older than any other force element currently in our inventory.

"The fleet's readiness, reliability and availability are steadily in decline. Today's tanker decision is a major step in the Air Force's critical recapitalization and modernization that is going to be required to defend the United States and to support our international partners in the 21st century."