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
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
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
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
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
"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."