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Foreign maker of next Air Force One? That may not fly

The Pentagon is open to the idea of European firm Airbus building the next fleet of planes that carry the president. But that could be a hard sell to Congress.

January 17, 2009|Peter Pae

For nearly two decades, Boeing Co.'s massive 747 jumbo jet has served as the president's flying White House, awing world leaders and projecting America's might wherever it landed.

But in the next decade, "United States of America" could end up being emblazoned on an even bigger plane that has been a symbol of European unity and pride.

The 747 Air Force One is slated to be replaced, and the new plane is likely to be stuffed with top-secret, high-tech gadgetry, including countermeasures to thwart missile attacks, and aerial refueling capability so it can fly for days without landing.

That's on top of comforts that are likely to make even the world's richest jet setters envious, including a medical facility and lavish staterooms with showers.

What it will not have is a presidential escape pod, analysts said, a feature that became an urban legend thanks to a 1997 action film named after the presidential plane and starring Harrison Ford.

It is unlikely that President-elect Barack Obama will get a chance to fly in a new Air Force One because the replacement isn't slated to begin flying until 2016 at the earliest. It takes as long as three years just to modify the plane so it can withstand attacks and enable the president to command from the sky.

But for the first time, the Pentagon has raised the prospect that the replacement for the most photographed and most advanced passenger jet in the world could come from a firm overseas.

In a move that is certain to raise the political ire of "buy American" supporters in Congress, the Air Force has requested information from aircraft makers, including Airbus of Europe, to replace the aging 747 jet. Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, has built presidential jets since the early 1960s.

"I just can't see how they could allow that to happen," John Pike, director of the military policy website, said about congressional reaction to an Airbus plane. "The American president getting off of an American plane has been a major part of the U.S. being a superpower."

The purchase of an Airbus plane is not as farfetched as some would think, several analysts said.

The Pentagon's request for information made quietly last week set in motion an open-ended contest. Airbus and Boeing are the only two companies capable of building an aircraft as large and sophisticated as that required by the leader of the world's most powerful country. Last year, the double-decked Airbus A380 unseated the 747 as the world's largest passenger plane.

"The level of security and the amount of foreign participation in this requirement has not been determined," the official request for information said. The Air Force has not ruled out buying from a foreign firm.

It wouldn't be the first time. Barriers against foreign competition collapsed several years ago when the Pentagon selected a consortium of U.S., Italian and British companies to build replacements for the president's Marine One helicopter fleet. And last year, the Air Force chose a team of Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp. and Airbus to build aerial refueling tankers, although that was later overturned after a protest from Boeing on procedural grounds. A similar partnership could bid for the Air Force One contract, analysts said.

"At first it sounds inconceivable, but then again so did the presidential helicopter selection," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. "If politics was completely removed, the Air Force may decide they need all the space they can get" from the A380, which has about 40% more interior space than the 747.

For its part, Boeing says it has no intention of losing its grip on building presidential jets. A Boeing official said it was too early to say what kind of plane it would propose as a replacement, although analysts are speculating that the contender could be the new and larger version of the 747 dubbed the 747-8 Intercontinental. The passenger version of the new plane is expected to enter service in 2011.

The president actually has two 747 jets at his disposal. "Air Force One" is the radio call sign for any plane that has the president on board. But the identical 747s have come to be commonly called Air Force One.

In its request for information, the Air Force said it wanted to buy three new planes, which would be cheaper than repairing and maintaining the aging 747s, which entered service in 1990. The president's plane was based on an earlier 747-200 model, many of which were built in the 1970s and are no longer in service, reducing the availability of spare parts.

The potential cost of the plane is classified, but passenger versions of the A380 cost as much as $350 million, while the price tag for a new 747-8 is about $300 million.

Whichever is chosen, the new plane is likely to be outfitted with the most advanced electronics, weapons and communication systems ever developed to defend against attacks. It will clearly have enough electronics on board to enable the president to direct major military operations from the sky.

The current 747 has 87 telephone lines, 28 of which are secured and encrypted.

"From a purely symbolic point of view, it would be really tough to buy a European-designed aircraft," said Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute. "It would be like the president arriving in a BMW limousine."


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