Tanker Bidding To Be Reopened

A Northrop Grumman tanker refuels an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force must replace its aging Boeing fleet.
A Northrop Grumman tanker refuels an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force must replace its aging Boeing fleet. (Courtesy Of Northrop Grumman)
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that the Pentagon will hold a new, fast-tracked competition to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of aerial refueling tankers, a move that overturns the previous award of the contract to Northrop Grumman.

The decision follows criticism of the selection process by the Government Accountability Office and underscores the sharp divisions over the contract. The deal to replace the Air Force's entire fleet could be worth up to $100 billion over the next two decades.

Gates said he expects the Pentagon to choose a new winner by the end of the year.

On Feb. 29, the Air Force choose Northrop Grumman and its partner, European Aeronautic Defence and Space, parent of Airbus, to build 179 refueling tankers. In March, Boeing protested the decision, saying it was treated unfairly. The Government Accountability Office agreed, saying the Air Force made "significant errors" in how it conducted the procurement and its mistakes "could have affected the outcome of what was a close competition."

Gates said he had concluded that the contract couldn't be awarded "because of significant issues pointed out" by the GAO.

John Young, defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, and officials from the GAO are expected to testify today before the House Armed Services Committee. Some congressional leaders have threatened to withhold funding for the program if the contract doesn't meet with their approval.

The competition has entered the presidential race. The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, has been a sharp critic of Boeing and pushed the Air Force for a competitive process. Some say this benefited Northrop. Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama praised the Pentagon yesterday for acting on the GAO's recommendation to reopen the competition.

Gates said the Air Force will not be in charge of the selection process but will oversee the contract once a decision is made. Young, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, will personally oversee the competition -- a move that is rare and shows the lack of confidence in the Air Force's acquisition team. Young, however, was involved in the selection of Northrop.

The Pentagon said it will revise parts of its request for proposals and address the GAO's criticism of how the Air Force evaluated the bids. The revised request will be issued later this month or in early August.

The Air Force had wanted to have its first plane delivered by 2011 to replace the tankers that Boeing built nearly 50 years ago. Some acquisition experts say the selection could now be delayed and left for the next administration.

"This administration is out of time to do a rigorous, objective award for a major weapons program," said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant at the Lexington Institute. "It would be different if the GAO had identified minor mistakes, but it found major, major problems. There is simply not enough time to fix those problems."

After Northrop's selection, a firestorm erupted on Capitol Hill. The two defense giants have engaged in an unusually public campaign to lobby congressional leaders, trade unions and other industry groups.

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