In the long run, military requirements and funding may matter more than trade disputes.

In a 574-page report last week, the World Trade Organization ruled that the European Union and several of its member states had failed to adjust their behavior on their subsidies to Airbus, after its last mammoth ruling on their subsidies to Airbus. Perhaps it’s not shocking that “Airbus scoffs, Boeing crows” was the headline from the Seattle Times. While the WTO didn’t rule exclusively in favor of the plaintiff, “destroyed US jobs, stole market share” was the headline in Forbes from publicist Loren Thompson. But no matter. As the Wall Street Journal more sagely observed, “the battle appears far from over,” for the WTO is expected to release a similar finding against the United States, perhaps early next year. Whatever happens with this endless meddling in the markets, though, the military business of both Airbus and Boeing may depend much more on how the US Air Force thinks about its future requirements, and whether it can actually fund them.

Since my essay on this subject last month about “Mutually Assured Destruction,” we have had some news flow. From the Air Force Association meeting last week, defense contracting super-lawyer Jim McAleese related that Darlene Costello, acting head of procurement for the USAF, and her deputy, Lieutenant General Arnie Bunch, stated that they looking at a potential extension of production of Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus tanker, at the request of Air Force Materiel Command. The next day, General Carlton Everhart of Air Mobility Command was further telling the crowd that the service will probably forego its previous plan for a KC-Y. Instead, the Air Force will likely proceed in the mid-term to a second tranche of upgraded KC-46Cs, whatever they might be needed to be.

Then, sometime between 2030 and 2035, the Air Force will look to buy a stealthy KC-Z. As Valerie Insinna reported for Defense News, that might be a fully autonomous aircraft, like the Navy’s planned MQ-25 Stingray drone tanker, or a piloted plane like all before it. This KC-Z could be a flying wing or a blended wing-body. General Everhart even said that he’d like it to have a cloaking device if industry can figure out how to make one. He just needs the airplane to stand forward into battle, and not lurk to the right off the map, trying to avoid the long-range Chinese fighter jets.

Finally, Arnie and Costello noted that their release of a request for proposals for replacing the E-8 J-STARS is awaiting guidance, in the hopefully-eventual 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, on how to structure the engineering and manufacturing development contract. As Insinna also reported, sometime in 2018 the USAF would like to award that EMD contract to one of the three expected bidders—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or the incumbent Northrop Grumman. As that aircraft is conceived now, it’s likely to be a commercial derivative that must linger, perhaps with fighter escort, behind the lines, but not so far as to be irrelevant to the fighting.

Plans change a lot, but those are the plans as they stand. These two sets of requirements, near-term and long-term, do seem at odds with one another. Northrop Grumman has been building huge stealthy jets (well, at least on-and-off) since the 1980s. Lockheed Martin and Boeing more than credibly bid for that recent B-21 program too. If the USAF wanted a stealthy tanker now, it could ask any of those companies—the very same three bidding on the very non-stealthy J-STARTS replacement—for designs. Yet it hasn’t.

All this reminds me of former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynn’s essay for Second Line of Defense, way back in January 2011, about the importance of Stealth in All Things. “Budget Rationalization of Survivable ISR” was his title; for DoD Buzz, Colin Clark translated that as “Scrap AWACS, JSTARS; Plough Dough Into F-35.” The idea sounded appealing  too, except maybe the part about the aviation monoculture of the JSF being the answer to Yet One More Thing. Or maybe it really is. Maybe battle management functionality can be handled in a single-seat aircraft. Maybe, as I once wrote, it can be managed through a drone, with enough reliable and secure bandwidth back to stateside operations centers. Or maybe not.

These are difficult questions, both technologically and operationally. If the answers are mostly no—and there’s reason for skepticism—then the foremost limitation has been the relative scarcity of funding for the airframes. After development costs, the USAF is buying those KC-46As for about $147 million each. It’s hoping to buy the B-21s for under $550 million each. To bring enough fuel, forward or not, a stealthy tanker will just cost a truckload more than any commercial derivative, whatever the tactical requirements of the battlespace.

But if drones are somehow the future of everything, or if the USAF somehow finds the money for an all-stealth fleet, Boeing needn’t worry about Airbus competing for its military business. It will need instead to worry about Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. There is that A400M, but as McAleese also reported, “industry should not hold its breath waiting for a follow-on to the C-17 fleet.” There are just too many programs to fund.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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