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Quit Crying, Boeing

So, Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) ? It turns out you can't win 'em all. What's more, you don't deserve to win -- so pipe down and suck it up.

As you've probably heard by now, Boeing has filed its long-anticipated protest on the KC-X Tanker contract. Boeing included a laundry list of complaints, criticizing how the U.S. Air Force interpreted Boeing's cost/price data, alleging it overemphasized the plane's ability to carry cargo as opposed to fuel, and underemphasized the plane's survivability in combat. Boeing said that the Air Force assigned "identical ratings across all five valuations factors: (1) Mission Capability, (2) Risk, (3) Past Performance, (4) Cost/Price, and (5) Integrated Fleet Aerial Refueling Assessment" to both Boeing's KC-767AT offering, and Northrop Grumman's (NYSE: NOC  ) KC-30. (Which means what? Boeing is arguing for a tie?) Boeing summed it up by calling the selection process "seriously flawed" and "replete with irregularities."

Seriously flawed
Interesting word choice there, Boeing. "Seriously flawed," you say? I wonder whether the Air Force's selection process was as "flawed" as, say, the border fence that Boeing and partners built for Homeland Security. Boeing itself called that one flawed. And the Government Accountability Office concluded that Boeing's fence "did not fully meet user needs, and the project's design will not be used as the basis for future ... development."

Of course, there's a difference between building fences and building multimillion-dollar aircraft. (Building fences is easier.) But if I recall correctly, Boeing hasn't been doing so hot lately at the airplane-building business either. For example, before losing the Air Force contract, it won bids to provide refueling tankers to both Japan and Italy. Boeing finally delivered its first tanker to Japan in February, a year later than it had agreed to. Italy's still waiting for its first delivery -- two years overdue.

And then there's the highest profile plane job of all: Boeing's vaunted 787 Dreamliner, fast evolving into Boeing's Logistical Nightmare Liner. Boeing initially promised to deliver 112 Dreamliners to its customers over the course of 2009. But as we learned just yesterday, a massive bungling of the logistical supply chain threatens to reduce that number to as few as 45 Dreamliners, and counting ... backward.

All of which the Pentagon might want to consider when deciding whether to give Boeing and its partner Textron (NYSE: TXT  ) the contract to build a new jeep for the Army. I mean, maybe building a jeep is easier than erecting a fence, but it seems to me that someone like the General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  ) /AM General team would be more qualified for this kind of work.

Replete with irregularities
And then there's the matter of "irregularities." Here again, we find Boeing tap-dancing through a minefield of unintended allusions. I mean, what could be more "irregular" than trying to win a contract by stealing documents from a competitor -- as Boeing was accused of doing in 1998, when competing with Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) for $1 billion in rocket contracts?

More recently, and even more on point, I wonder if Boeing remembers how it got itself into this life-or-death struggle with Northrop in the first place. Here's a hint: In 2003, Boeing was accused of misconduct in its dealings with a Pentagon procurement official responsible for negotiating a lease of 100 new refueling tankers. It seems that in exchange for assisting Boeing on Airbus' bid for the contract (Airbus parent EADS allied with Northrop in winning the latest tanker contract), she got a job at Boeing HQ upon retiring from the military. Nice. That one cost Boeing a cool $615 million fine, and cost Boeing CFO Mike Sears his job.

Back to the present
So now comes Boeing, complaining about being on the receiving end of "serious flaws" and "irregularities." Well, boo-hoo.

Now, I don't mean to be callous -- for all I know, Boeing's KC-767AT really was the better plane. Could be the Pentagon really didn't give the boys from Illinois a fair shake on this deal. The way both parties to this dispute are spinning the facts, it's impossible for an outsider to know which way is up. For example, on the day Boeing filed its complaint, victorious Northrop magically discovered that its contract win would create 48,000 new U.S. jobs, instead of the 25,000 it had previously announced. (If you take either of those numbers at face value, I've got a border fence in Tucson I'd like to sell you.)

What I do know is that by waving the red flag of Made-in-the-USA-ism, and challenging the award of the tanker program to another U.S. contractor (albeit one partnered with a European ally), Boeing holds up the deployment of the tankers by at least the 100 days that the GAO will take to rule on its challenge. Furthermore, the GAO's decision is not binding, so if Boeing loses, it could appeal to federal court, dragging out the process for months or years to come. A similar GAO challenge launched by L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL  ) back in 2006 delayed the transfer of a Pentagon translation contract to rival DynCorp (NYSE: DCP  ) by more than a year.

Moral of the story
Boeing has a choice to make. It can continue to play the hypocrite, and perhaps reap tens of billions of dollars in reward, if it manages to outplay Northrop and EADS in the public relations war. Personally, I'd rather see Boeing admit its past failures, and fix the work that it's already won before it starts whining about the unfairness of not winning new work.

Like my mama used to tell me, "Clean up your old toys first, and then you can play with a new one."

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