Washington business leaders are mounting a coordinated approach to create a manufacturing environment that is even more attractive to the aerospace industry, writes Connie Niva, a Port of Everett commissioner. "We are going to aggressively market our region to make sure the Pentagon knows that Washington is the premier place in the world to build...

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TENS of thousands of good-paying jobs in the United States, many of them in Washington’s aerospace industry, are riding on the outcome of a Pentagon decision.

The issue is which aircraft will be chosen to serve as the military’s new refueling tanker. It’s a huge contract — $35 billion for about 180 planes.

Refueling tankers play a critical role in our nation’s national security. The U.S. Air Force depends on tanker aircraft to refuel short-range fighter and bomber aircraft in mid-flight. The current tanker aircraft, which were built by Boeing, are 50 years old — older than the pilots who fly them. I have heard stories of pilots flying the same planes their grandfathers flew.

Boeing is proposing a tanker version of either its 767 or 777 to be assembled at its existing plant in Everett; the competition comes from a consortium led by Europe’s Airbus. Their plane would be assembled in a yet-to-be-built plant in Alabama from parts manufactured in the U.S. and in foreign countries.

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The stakes couldn’t be higher for Washington and the U.S. aerospace industry. Building the Boeing tankers would require the talents of more than 44,000 American workers — people employed by Boeing and its 300 suppliers around the country.

After nearly 10 years of controversy and failed attempts, the Pentagon is expected to initiate a new process for choosing a tanker, with a decision slated for early next year.

Members of Washington’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Congressman Norm Dicks, and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire are among the strong advocates for the Boeing tanker.

“These are tough economic times, when we need to be fighting for American jobs, and they’re talking about building the planes in France,” Dicks said in a recent newspaper report.

Likewise, Gregoire speaks out frequently on this issue, including this statement: “Boeing and its work force are the best manufacturer of airplanes in the world. It is an outrage at a time when the national economy is weakening, that American jobs would be sent overseas. The high-wage jobs this contract would offer are precisely the type of jobs we need to keep in America.”

Murray has been a leader from the beginning — warning as long as five years ago that awarding the tanker contract to Airbus would accelerate the threat to our nation’s position as a global aerospace leader.

“Too many Americans, especially in our government, are not aware of what Europe is doing to kill off our aerospace industry,” she said, referring to government subsidies and other support provided to Airbus.

Washington has the most to lose if our nation’s aerospace industry strength declines. The industry is a vital part of our economy. Aerospace companies support 200,000 jobs in our state and pay $5 billion annually in wages.

Business, labor, local government and civic leaders are gearing up to demonstrate how important the tanker project is to our local and national economy.

People from across the state are coming together under the banner of the Washington Aerospace Partnership (http://www.washington-aerospace.com.). We are mounting a coordinated approach to create a manufacturing environment that is even more attractive to the aerospace industry. And, we are going to aggressively market our region to make sure the Pentagon knows that Washington is the premier place in the world to build airplanes.

The Partnership is working with leaders from the International Association of Machinists, the Aerospace Futures Alliance, the AFL-CIO and the governor’s new Council on Aerospace to put Washington in a winning position. We’re also working with leaders from other states — including California, Texas, Illinois and Kansas — that have a stake in the tanker project.

The military tanker project is vital to Washington’s economy, and vital to the economy and national security of the United States.

Connie Niva is a Port of Everett commissioner and serves on the Board of Regents for Washington State University.