Fate of C-17, Boeing jobs pending

Apparently, the annual kabuki dance over the fate of the C-17 transport — including 500 jobs at Boeing Macon — will not end with a new administration in Washington, D.C.

On one hand, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said purchase of the four-engined jet should be capped at the current programmed buy of 205 aircraft. President Obama’s fiscal year 2010 defense budget delivered to Congress on Thursday reinforced that plan and included $91 million to begin shutting down the production line. Obama’s 2009 war supplemental request of $75.5 billion also excluded additional Globemaster IIIs.

But, as in previous years, the House Appropriations Committee is toying with adding $2.2 billion to the 2009 supplemental request for eight additional C-17s. And additional House and Senate members are lobbying the Defense Department for up to 15 in the 2010 budget.

Although it’s early in the convoluted process, production of the huge cargo aircraft has been sustained the past two years by war supplementals pushed through by Congress without support of the previous administration, including 15 additional aircraft in 2008.

Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling was guarded in his comments about the C-17’s 2009 supplemental chances. “We are certainly pleased by the bipartisan support we continue to receive,” he said from his Long Beach, Calif., office. “We are looking forward to watching as the budget process continues.”

Why the House committee chose to support just eight additional aircraft is unclear. One reason could be budget pressures from the administration. Another is the likelihood of additional foreign purchases. The United Arab Emirates has announced plans to purchase four C-17s, while Qatar has said it will exercise an option for an additional two. Neither order is on contract, but the foreign purchases would push the overall number to 14, which would sustain the Boeing production line for another year.

Without additional orders, the Long Beach final assembly plant will shut down by January 2011. That would mean production at Boeing Macon, where 30 percent of the aircraft fuselage is assembled, would end several months before. Altogether, Boeing has said about 30,000 jobs in 43 states would be affected. Resurrecting the production line at some future point would cost at least $2 billion.

To this point, 200 C-17s have been delivered to customers worldwide. The Air Force has received 186 aircraft, with another one scheduled to arrive next week.

Several factors could support additional U.S. purchases, including results from the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review and a new Mobility Capabilities Requirements Study. The current fleet is also significantly taxed in the war on terror, flying for far more hours than originally programmed. Finally, critics contend that shutting down the C-17 line would cede manufacture of all large, military aircraft to the Europeans.

Drelling is again cautious about prospects in the fiscal year 2010 budget, understanding the mix of priorities facing decision makers.

“We will be studying the detailed budget for potential impact to Boeing, the industry, its industrial base and to all its workers as well as important policy debates in the areas of health care, energy, the environment and education,” he said in a prepared statement.

To contact writer Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.