WASHINGTON — The US Air Force selected Boeing to provide the next-generation Air Force One on a sole-source selection, a move that had been widely expected but is still welcome for the aerospace company.
The service announced on Jan. 28 that, after consulting with acquisition chief Frank Kendall, it had selected the Boeing 747-8 design for its Presidential Airlift Recapitalization program.
In a statement announcing the selection, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called the presidential aircraft "one of the most visible symbols of the United States of America and the office of the president of the United States."
"The Boeing 747-8 is the only aircraft manufactured in the United States [that] when fully missionized meets the necessary capabilities established to execute the presidential support mission, while reflecting the office of the president of the United States of America consistent with the national public interest," James said.
The president is currently flown in a heavily modified Boeing 747-200B. When he is on board the plane, it is known as Air Force One.
The selection of Boeing is not a shock, given the desire for a four-engine aircraft that met the criteria. The only two companies with realistic offerings for the program were Boeing and Airbus, whose A380 is manufactured in Toulouse, France.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, noted that Airbus never had a real shot, for both political and practical reasons.
"Aside from the political optics associated with the president flying an Airbus, modifying the A380 production system to be compliant with Air Force One requirements would be a challenge Airbus probably doesn't want," Aboulafia said. "That leaves the 747."
The selection of the 747-8 is a nice morale boost to Boeing, which has been slowing production on the large airliner for several years. In December, Boeing announced it would slow production on the 747-8 down to 16 a year, a drop from 24 per year in 2013.
However, the limited nature of the presidential PAR program means the overall impact will be minimal in terms of keeping that line going. Although the Air Force has not specified how many new aircraft would be procured under the program, the presidential fleet has traditionally involved three planes.
"We're only talking a few aircraft, so it really doesn't help a production line that's under very heavy pressure," Aboulafia noted. "But it does mean lucrative development and support work, and there's the prestige factor, too."
The service plans to compete a sustainment contract over the 30-year lifespan of the next Air Force One.
"We are committed to incorporating competition for subsystems of the missionized aircraft as much as practicable and will participate substantively in any competitions led by the prime contractor," James said in the press release.
"The program will use multiple strategies, such as the use of proven technologies and commercially certified equipment, to ensure the program is as affordable as possible while still meeting mission requirements." James added. "We will insist upon program affordability through cost conscious procurement practices."
The military production line for Boeing is under stress, as a number of key planes — including the F-15, F/A-18 and C-17 — are currently slated to end production before 2020. The next Air Force One Air Force's the KC-46A tanker and the Navy's P-8 are as commercial derivatives that are being modified to meet military needs.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.