What's Brewin: Tanker Wars on the Web

Northrop Grumman and Boeing take their battle over a recently awarded multibillion-dollar aerial tanker contract online

A decade ago, when a company won a major contract, it would issue a press release and maybe take out a full-page ad in some trade magazines and The Washington Post. If a competitor decided to protest that award, it would hire some high-priced lawyers, issue a press release and then do some heavy, but quiet, lobbying on the Hill.

Comment on this article in The Forum.It's different today. Northrop Grumman Corp., which in February won the Air Force's $40 billion contract to build the next fleet of aerial refueling tankers, and Boeing Co., which quickly protested it, have taken the battle over the lucrative deal out of the backrooms and onto the Web.

The companies are using the same kinds of tools that candidates in the presidential race have embraced. The tanker Web wars on both sides are managed by Internet-savvy communications managers who have deployed a virtual arsenal to make their case. This includes tanker-specific Web sites, blogs, e-mail campaigns to Congress and key journalists, and even YouTube videos.

Tim Paynter, tanker spokesman for Northrop Grumman, told me that in anticipation of a contract win, he reserved a key piece of Web real estate -- the americasnewtanker.com domain name -- in early January, and started Northrop Grumman's Web marketing push 20 minutes after the Air Force announced the award.

Paynter, who spent 10 years honing his craft as a Navy communications and public affairs specialist before joining Northrop Grumman, said the tanker Web campaign started on Northrop Grumman's Web site and shifted to the new tanker-specific Web site on April 3.

That site, Paynter said, pushes out daily Tanker Truths to counter Boeing, and also has a link that makes it easy for the public to send messages of support for Northrop Grumman's tanker to members of Congress. Paynter said this function has generated tens of thousands of e-mails to Congress.

Paynter, a 30-year-old self-taught Webmaster who said he grew up with the Web, also uses YouTube to get Northrop Grumman's message across. But because the company (like many others) blocks access to YouTube, he has to post tanker videos from his home computer to YouTube.

Boeing has its own tanker Web domain name, globaltanker.com. Bill Barksdale, the company's tanker communications manager, raised the Web ante on March 18 by adding only the second external blog in the company's history, called Tanker Facts. (The company's other external blog, Randy's Journal, is run by Randy Tinseth, head of Boeing's commercial airplane division.)

Barksdale said the blog helps carry the Boeing tanker message "outside the Beltway . . . to make a very public case on why the award should be overturned." The blog, he added, is a new way to "get as much information as possible out to the public on why [the award to Northrop Grumman] was a bad decision."

Quite a few comments on Boeing's blog bash Northrop Grumman for its partnership with EADS on the tanker deal and the potential loss of U.S. jobs. But, when you run a blog, as Barksdale points out, you get comments that don't exactly fit in with the company line, and Boeing, to its credit, posts them. For example, Mike from the U.K., said in a Boeing tanker blog post:

"Do U.S. troops not deserve the best equipment, regardless of where it is manufactured? Or are they expected to risk their lives with inferior equipment just because it is made in the U.S.? That should be the first concern of U.S. citizens."

While a decade older than Paynter, Barksdale said he has his own set of Web skills, and what he lacks, he can seek counsel from his 11- and 14-year-old children, who are not shy about telling him about what he's doing right or wrong.

Hill to Defense: Hire the Best and Nerdiest

That's the recommendation of the House Armed Services Committee to Defense in its "Roles and Missions" report released in March. The report advised the military to figure out how to recruit computer nerds who don't fit the standard military mode -- including potential recruits who have tattoos, body piercings and who resist hierarchcal organizations.

Kent Scheinder, a retired Army colonel and self-described dinosaur who now heads the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, agrees with the HASC, with some reservations. If nerds can pass a security vetting, Schneider said, then Defense must get beyond judging good candidates on whether or not they have tattoos, nose rings or ponytails.

Schneider speaks from experience. When he joined Northrop Grumman after the Army in the late 1990s, Schneider said he had a male employee "with a big, long ponytail, and I wanted to carry around a pair of scissors to cut it off." But, Schneider said, "after I worked with him for a while, I came to respect the fact that he had a lot of skills and adjusted to the ponytail." The employee adjusted, too, Schneider said, and eventually cut off the ponytail himself.

The PEO-EIS Morass

The Army's Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems buys billions of dollars' worth of gadgets and gizmos designed to move information around in nanoseconds, but since October 2007, when Gary Winkler took over command of the outfit, information has moved at the speed of molasses.

I'm told that this is the result of a whole new approval chain that takes days if not weeks to get all the right chops to publicly release the information, something that did not exist when Kevin Carroll ran PEO-EIS.

Gary, your folks do good stuff and field really interesting gear. How about making it easier to tell their story?

Old B-52 Drivers Take on Cyber Command Shield

I've heard from a couple of old B-52 pilots who have their roots in the now-defunct Strategic Air Command that they are less than thrilled with the shield of the new Air Force Cyber Command, which closely mimics the old SAC shield.

While the Air Force says the shield honors the lineage that the new command has with SAC, I've received a couple of e-mails that call it an insult to SAC, whose now retired pilots can't stand "digit-heads" taking over the symbol of their proud tradition rooted in Cold War nuclear missions.

This is a situation that will only get worse when the Cyber Command starts hiring guys with ponytails and tattoos.

Afghanistan, Where's That?

Afghanistan has become the forgotten front, a fact driven home by a reader who sent me a link to a briefing given to the Senior Army Reserve Commanders Asssociaton this February. The briefing said Afghanistan has "gone off the map" as far as the senior Defense leadership was concerned.

"It is time to revitalize and redouble our efforts toward stabilizing Afghanistan and rethink our economic and military strategies," the briefing stated.

Seems like a good idea to me. I think Osama bin Laden still hangs out in the neighborhood.