Could Boeing Lose the Contract for Air Force One?

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Less than a month after his election, President Trump tweeted out his displeasure with what he said was the $4 billion cost to build a fleet of two presidential planes as the new Air Force One. After meeting with Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) CEO Dennis Muilenburg, everything seemed sorted out on the cost of the plane. Until last Friday.

Aviation Week reported that a panel of aerospace and defense analysts has proposed dumping Boeing’s 747-8 as the next generation Air Force One and using instead Northrop Grumman Corp.’s (NYSE: NOC) B-21 stealth bomber or a militarized version of Boeing’s 737.

Cost management consulting firm Wright Williams & Kelly (WWK), at the direction of Defense Secretary James Mattis who ordered a review of the Air Force One program, concluded that modifying the requirements for a four-engine plane that can carry more than 70 passengers could “significantly” reduce the cost of the Air Force One fleet.

Northrop Grumman’s B-21 has one big advantage: its stealth capability is much safer in an age when “the proliferation of high-tech surface-to-air missiles to ‘non-state actors and guerrilla groups'” presents a serious threat to a 747-based Air Force One. WWK spokesman Danny Lam told Aviation Week:

The 747 is a fat radar target, about the size of a B-52. [The B-21] has stealth built in, it’s nuclear-rated and heavily shielded right off the bat. It’s going to be terribly cramped but man, it would be a survivable platform, especially if operated in twos and threes.

Initial deployment of the B-21 is currently set for middle of the next decade, roughly in line with the 2024 delivery date for the 747-based Air Force One.

The biggest drawback is the number of passengers a B-21 could carry. Lam said that modifications to the plane’s internal weapons bay and other compartments would allow the plane to carry a “handful” of passengers. To accommodate the president’s entourage of advisers and journalists, separate planes would be needed, but those could be less expensive 737s or even non-Boeing aircraft from Airbus, Bombardier or Embraer.

The least expensive option to the 747 is to replace Air Force One with a 737, of which several militarized versions already exist. A militarized 737 would save the one-time cost of militarizing a 747 and “probably meet most of their needs” according to WWK’s Lam.

Then, of course, there are the optics. Says Lam:

What image do you want to project? An aircraft that’s going out of production? Or that you’re dealing with a nation that is deadly serious about going to war if you’re not careful. Is that the image we want to project? That’s a policy decision. But suppose you’re a little power who wants to take out the president of the U.S. with a surprise attack. I would say the deterrent effect of showing up in a very, very well-protected, heavily-armed aircraft with multiple planes—I’d think twice.

Aviation Week has more details and an artist’s rendering of what a B-21 version of Air Force One would look like. Not as benign as the hump-backed 747 is it? But is that a good thing or not?