In sparring for the Air Force tanker contract, Boeing and Airbus are playing up U.S. jobs. That raises a key question: Which jet would be more American?

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Aiming a competitive blow at the Pacific Northwest, Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders vowed Monday to “change the future face of American aerospace” by establishing the Gulf Coast as “a global center of aeronautical aerospace excellence.”

If Airbus parent EADS wins the lucrative U.S. Air Force tanker contract, Airbus would assemble both the air-refueling tankers and commercial cargo jets in a new facility in Mobile, Ala., Enders said, and the proposed wide-body jet plant would draw Airbus suppliers to the region.

No wonder Alabama Gov. Bob Riley introduced Enders at the news conference as “our friend, Alabama’s friend, America’s friend.”

The event hits at the heart of a big political question underlying the Air Force contest: Which plane would be more American — Boeing’s Everett-built 767 tanker or the Airbus A330 tanker developed by Europe’s EADS with Northrop Grumman?

If European Aeronautic, Defence & Space wins the tanker contract, it will break ground on the new Alabama plant this year and could build both military and commercial wide-body jets there by 2010.

The Air Force is to award the contract next month, with an initial order worth $40 billion to develop, build and maintain 179 tankers. Potential follow-on orders to replace the rest of the tanker fleet make the eventual prize worth as much as $100 billion.

In the deeply political battle for that prize, Boeing claims 85 percent by value of the 767’s content is U.S.-made, and portrays the contest as “America’s tanker” squaring off against a European interloper.

But among Boeing jets, only the forthcoming 787 is more heavily outsourced than the 767. The plane’s fuselage is built from large panel sections, most of which are made in Japan. The vertical tail comes from Italy.

In an interview, EADS North America Chief Executive Ralph Crosby depicted Boeing’s increased outsourcing as undermining its position.

“What we are talking about doing [in Mobile] reverses a trend that Boeing is absolutely and unrelentingly following: taking jobs that used to be American jobs in Seattle and moving them offshore,” he said.

Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst based in Sammamish who in the past has consulted for the European plane maker, said Airbus shipping A330 pieces from Europe for assembly in Mobile isn’t any less American than Boeing’s global sourcing of the 767.

“I don’t think there’s any difference at all,” said Hamilton. “Boeing has been masterful, but masterfully disingenuous, in waving the flag on this one. The 767 fuselage has always been built in Japan.”

Airbus’ plan calls for A330 pieces to arrive in big, partially completed sections with many systems pre-installed in Europe — likely making the Mobile production line less labor-intensive than Boeing’s 767 assembly operation, and more like that planned for the 787.

The spokesmen for Boeing’s Washington work force are in an odd position, arguing for Boeing to win the contract but complaining that more of the work should be in the U.S.

Last summer, when Machinists union District 751 president Tom Wroblewski lobbied Washington’s congressional delegation to work for an Everett tanker win, he also asked for pressure on Boeing to increase the share of U.S. work on the 767.

In an August interview, Wroblewski said Boeing’s rationale for giving so much of the work to Japan — that it was a necessary offset for sales of the jet to customers in that country — should work in reverse now that the 767 is set to soon become solely a military aircraft.

“Who’s the customer on the 767 tanker? It’s the American people,” said Wroblewski.

Though the Japanese air force has bought four 767 tankers, that’s tiny compared with the prospective U.S. order.

“We’re going to be pushing for that work that’s overseas to be brought back to the U.S.,” Wroblewski said.

Boeing spokeswoman Leslie Hazzard said the company has no plans to do so.

Nevertheless, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., favors Boeing over EADS.

“It is critical that the planes our men and women in uniform fly are made by American workers,” Murray said in an e-mailed statement. “Our military deserves the best product, made by an American work force, and Boeing makes it.”

Responding Monday to the Airbus announcement, Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale said “moving an entire production line from France adds time and complexity to production. … We think this move simply highlights the inherent inefficiencies of their production approach relative to ours.”

He also questioned EADs’ ability to overcome political obstacles in Europe.

“Whether or not the governments that control EADS will permit such a move remains to be seen, given those governments’ apparent desire to keep the EADS tier-one supplier base in Europe,” Barksdale said.

Politics aside, the two airplanes offered as tankers are very different products. The choice essentially comes down to which is the right size for the Air Force mission.

EADS pitches the much bigger Airbus jet as offering superior troop and military cargo-transport capacity in addition to the tanker role of refueling jet fighters in the air. Boeing says the 767 is sized to land at the smaller airfields a tanker may have to use in wartime.

“It depends what mission the Air Force ultimately decides upon,” said analyst Hamilton. “It’s a choice between the Ford Explorer and the Ford Expedition.”

Whatever the outcome, Hamilton said, the loser is likely to appeal. That will push the final decision into the political realm for Congress to resolve.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com