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Tue, Jan 24, 2006

Military-Spec Composites May Cause Boeing Trouble

Is Company Sharing Top-Secret Tech?

A meeting last April between a group of 787 engineers and a Boeing investigator may have lasting repercussions on the airliner the company is relying on to hold a competitive edge in the marketplace.

The engineers -- who had also worked on the B-2 stealth bomber program nearly 20 years ago -- told investigator Rick Barreiro they would be relying on technology and information gleaned from the B-2 to construct the new airliner.

The revelation didn't sit well the investigator, especially in light of federal laws prohibiting US companies from letting sensitive military technology go abroad. Boeing is relying heavily on outside contractors -- including several overseas -- to develop and construct sub-assemblies on the Dreamliner.

When questioned about the use of military tech on the Dreamliner, the Seattle Times reports the engineers refused to sign forms declaring the 787 was free of military data -- with one saying he was afraid that by signing, he'd be vulnerable to a federal indictment.

Since that fateful meeting, Boeing hired outside legal experts to pore over documents relating to Boeing's uses to composites -- searching for proof the company's manufacturing techniques originated on the commercial side of Boeing's operations, and not from its extensive military programs.

"It is our clear intent to make sure we comply with the law," said Walt Gillette, head engineer and vice president for airplane development on the 787. "We all underestimated the amount of screening we needed to do" for military technology, he added.

After his meeting with the B-2 engineers, Barreiro re-tagged several 787 tech items previously listed as "dual-use" -- meaning they have both commercial and military applications, and which are generally exportable if properly licensed -- as defense-only.

Exporting defense technology is subject to much stricter regulations under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) law -- and an airliner carrying ITAR-classified technology cannot be sold overseas.

The questions before Boeing executives appeared to be twofold: would sharing of the composites technology lead to military secrets being handed to enemy nations -- or at least, potential future economic competitors? And, how can the company implement its outsource program -- seen as vital to Boeing's goals for 787 production and beyond -- if government regulations forbid Boeing from sharing relevant data?

When his findings came to light within Boeing's halls, Barreiro was angrily confronted by Vanessa Gemmell, 787 export-control manager. The next day, Barreiro threatened to quit -- but was talked down by Boeing legal staffers who shared his concerns.

To make matters worse, this isn't the first time a technology export issue has caused potential trouble for Boeing. The company ran afoul of Department of Commerce regs in the 1990s over the company's sharing of composites technologies on the 777. The matter was only  resolved last year, with a letter of warning being issued to the company.

The State Department has also taken Boeing to task over military-spec gyrochip technology on commercial jets. Boeing was hit with 94 violations of the Arms Control Act last year, for the company's alleged failure to obtain proper export licenses. The case has not been resolved.

As far as the 787, an intense program is underway to validate data that may have been obtained first on military programs -- but has since entered the commercial spectrum.

As an example, engineers were forced to retest the durability of plasticized carbon-fiber tape first developed for the B-2. It is now common knowledge the tape, used to make composite structures, can be frozen and stored for up to one year -- but 787 engineers had to do their own testing to reach that conclusion, instead of relying on data first taken from the B-2 program.

Boeing must identify every "little piece of data that came from a military source," Gillette told the Times. "We have to find it, and we have to remove it and replace it with a commercial source of the data."

A Boeing spokeswoman added the grueling process has reduced the number of potential ITAR conflict items on the 787 from 20 in July to "only a few" now.

There is also the fact it's not just Boeing and the military that have been working on composites, or the applications Boeing is using on the Dreamliner. The company's intended method to construct fuselages with composites -- but using construction methods commonly used on aluminum-bodied aircraft -- isn't necessarily top-secret, for example.

Gillette added commercial-aerospace research on composites predates military uses of the technology, citing NASA documents outlining research programs conducted by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas. That research culminated in the first use of composites on primary aircraft structures in civil jets -- before the B-2 was a reality.

As with most findings from NASA programs, the results of that work were "put into the public domain for all to use," according to Gillette.

The Airbus A310, which sported a composite tail on its introduction in 1985, may have benefitted from such a program.

And then there's the matter that quite simply, the B-2 is no longer the state-of-the-art. Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, agreed with Gillette that the methods used in building the 20-year-old B-2 have since been surpassed on the commercial side.

"Knowing how to work with composites, by itself, would not greatly aid an enemy," Thompson said.

The trouble, said Thompson, is that Boeing still has to comply with export regulations he calls outdated, and not in step with today's global economy.

"At some point people need to lift their eyes from their military concerns and look around at how the global market has changed," Thompson said.

Boeing has made progress in meeting the current regulations, however. After a period of intense scrutiny and delay, in November the Department of Commerce granted a license that will allow manufacture of the 787 rudder in Chengdu, China, according to Commerce undersecretary for export control David McCormick.

"There is a national-security issue around composites," McCormick said, specifically citing China. "That's certainly something Boeing has tried to be sensitive to."

FMI: www.boeing.com

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