Russia's United Aircraft denies it will bid to build U.S. tanker

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Russian company said Monday that it does not plan to submit a bid to build an aerial refueling tanker for the U.S. Air Force, denying reports in The Washington Post and other media that circulated last week saying that the firm would seek a joint venture with an American defense contractor.

United Aircraft is "not planning to take part in the tanker tender or set up a joint venture," Alexey I. Fedorov, president and chairman of the executive board, said in a statement posted Monday on the company's Web site.

The statement comes after John Kirkland, a Los Angeles-based lawyer, said Friday in a telephone interview that he was representing a joint venture of United Aircraft and a U.S. defense contractor. Kirkland said the group would be bidding on building the fleet of aerial refueling tankers.

Media organizations including The Post and the Wall Street Journal cited Kirkland's statement in reporting United Aircraft's supposed interest in the tanker contract.

In his statement, Fedorov also said that he "was not familiar with Mr. Kirkland." Attempts to reach Moscow-based United Aircraft on Monday were unsuccessful.

However, Kirkland published a statement Monday evening saying that he was "engaged several months ago to negotiate a joint venture" with United Aircraft. The venture, he said, was to be called UAC America.

The group was going to bid on American defense projects, starting with the tanker contract, he said.

Kirkland said that he was "involved in multiple communications with high-level individuals at both UAC and Russia's Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation" on the proposed venture and that he had "documented conversations and written communications" from UAC stating that the joint venture was "approved and that an agreement would be executed shortly."

In a letter to Russian officials issued Monday, Kirkland wrote that he contacted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's office about the tanker project and that she discussed it with Russian officials. But senior State Department officials said Monday that they are unaware of any contact between Clinton and "people representing United Aircraft, including Kirkland."

P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for Clinton, said that "during her visit in Moscow, Russian leaders brought up the desirability of a joint cargo-aircraft project, but it was not specific to the U.S. Air Force tanker program."

Confusion over the Russian firm's possible bid marks the latest twist in one of the U.S. military's most controversial contracts.

This month, Northrop Grumman dropped out of the bidding on a $40 billion contract to build 179 refueling planes for the Air Force. Northrop had partnered with Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) to compete against Chicago-based Boeing. But Northrop said the competition favored Boeing's smaller 767 aircraft.

Also on Friday, EADS said it was requesting a three-month extension of the May 10 bidding deadline because it was considering submitting a bid.

In 2004, Boeing lost the deal to build the tanker after an ethics scandal.

In 2008, EADS won the contract, but Boeing fought back and had the award nullified. The Pentagon restarted the bidding process last year.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Monday that the Pentagon is "seriously considering the extension request from EADS."

In regards to the United Aircraft offer, Morrell said that "despite press reports indicating United Aircraft is interested in bidding, we have not received any formal communication from the company, one way or the other."

"That said, this is and always has been a fair and open competition," Morrell said. "We welcome all qualified bidders."

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