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Commentary: Boeing would do well to plan for a different future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 1, 2009 - Thousands of workers in the region whose livelihoods are at risk wait anxiously while labor leaders and politicians make hollow cases for more warplanes. Among those waiting are some of the roughly 5,900 Boeing jobs associated with C-17 Cargolifter and the F/A-18 Super Hornet, planes whose last multi-year contracts were issued in 2002 and 2003.   

2009 represents the third year in a row that the C-17 has been kept on life-support via the emergency war supplemental bills, the only way the spending could be pushed through Congress. Defense Secretary Gates' decision not to order any further C-17s is not a cut. It is, however, a bold stand for fiscal sanity rather than the excess and waste being supported by Boeing's formidable political network.

The United States has already ordered 205 of the Cargolifters, more than ever formally requested by the Pentagon. It is not surprising is that three years after the contract expired, no more planes are being ordered. What is surprising is that orders have been drawn out this long. To call this a cut is an illusion grounded in denial.

Let me make this clear, the end of the road for the C-17, even if not this year, is not far away. The political banter in support of this plane is severely shortsighted and is a disservice to those whose jobs are connected to the Cargolifter. Rather than dragging out production for an indeterminate number of years, based on annual tantrums from Boeing, our political and labor leaders should be fighting for new, sustainable work for the St Louisans whose jobs are currently associated with this plane.

In contrast to the C-17, the future of the F/A-18 will not be short-lived, as there are current orders from several foreign nations and there has been no announcement that the U.S. will completely stop acquiring more of these planes. Additionally, it is common for aircraft manufacturers to update planes throughout their lifespan. We can expect this to be the case with the Super Hornet for many years, keeping the skills of engineers and machinists alike honed for the duration of the upgrades. Arguments warning of the dangers of ending production of the F-18 dramatically neglect these points.

From a taxpayer's perspective, the economic value of products whose manufacturer boasts that, for just the F/A-18, it has 1,900 suppliers spread across 46 states must be questioned. Such a vast network is an incredibly inefficient way to run a business. But Boeing, like all the major players in the military-industrial complex, has chosen to be politically efficient rather than fiscally efficient. It does not have to remain this way.

Rather than fear-mongering about national security and job losses, a more appropriate response to the announcement of a reduction in orders would be to inquire about long-term plans for the F/A-18 so the people affected could muster a responsible business plan to accommodate changes ahead. And as the federal government looks to hold down expenditures, it would behoove the leaders to hold accountable companies such as Boeing that waste huge sums of money, not to add value to their products, but to spread out production across as many congressional districts as possible. When politicians fight for profligate businesses, they waste taxpayer dollars that are greatly needed in any number of other places.

Despite my criticism of Boeing, I'm not saying accountability is synonymous with insolvency. Boeing makes both military and non-military planes, and the company's production is not limited to aircraft. As this debate over warplanes rages, ignored are the possibilities for a shift of production priorities.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America an infrastructure grade of "D," requiring $2.2 trillion in improvements.

There is strong support for a vibrant Green economy.

As defense spending approaches a plateau, a shift from defense to civilian manufacturing would be prudent, practical and profitable.

We don't need more C-17s. The F/A-18 isn't vanishing. Times are changing, though. If we want jobs and job security, we need to look beyond wasteful military products and look forward to new, fiscally sound, successful production possibilities.

Andrew Heaslet is the coordinator of the St Louis based Peace Economy Project.