Boeing Cannot Design Planes Anymore

As a result of years of layoffs and retirements of staff, Boeing lacked the technical resources to make a credible bid for the new Air Force Trainer:

It seemed so all-American: a U.S. aviation giant unveiling its newest military jet to flashing lights and thumping heavy-metal music. But the sleek twin-tailed T-X — Boeing’s candidate to become the U.S. Air Force’s next pilot trainer — couldn’t have made it to the dolled-up St. Louis hangar without a good deal of international help.

For all its deep aviation heritage, the Chicago company needed a partner on the T-X bid. A decade of engineering layoffs had left the venerable American firm without the workers needed to add the trainer competition to its existing workload, particularly with the Air Force requiring demonstration aircraft with a relatively quick turnaround. It also needed a way to do it more cheaply than past endeavors.

So the maker of the F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet teamed up with Saab — builder of the Gripen 4.5-generation fighter jet — to develop a T-X candidate. And less than three years after the two firms announced their partnership, they have now unveiled their first two aircraft, which are expected to fly by year’s end. That’s pretty fast for an American defense firm.

While officials from neither company would say just what parts of the plane were developed in Europe, Saab is believed to be manufacturing large portions of it. In June, a large Russian cargo plane believed to be carrying sections of the new aircraft flew from Sweden to the U.S.


“I’m not saying this thing is doomed. It’s just that I’m uncomfortable with a big disconnect between engineering and design and manufacturing,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Virginia-based Teal Group consulting firm. “It adds risk, it gets rid of a core company advantage, and frankly, there are just huge advantages of having designers and manufacturers co-located.”

Aboulafia cited Boeing’s need to lean on its partner for engineering.

“Outsourcing design — that appears to have a lot more complications than benefits,” he said. “It adds risk and it gets rid of a core capability, a core differentiator.”

I would note here that Boeing has outsourced technical expertise on the civil side as well, with many of the stumbles in 787 development coming from the fact that critical engineering expertise was outsourced to, “risk sharing partners.”

It is a clear indictment of the McDonnell Douglas MBA style management that Boeing has had for the past few decades.

Boeing can no longer design and build new aircraft.

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