Controversial Air Force tanker contract reopened

The new process will be as transparent as possible, said defense officials Wednesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Pentagon on Wednesday reopened the bidding process for the controversial Air Force tanker contract in an effort to address issues raised by congressional auditors that had forced the Pentagon to reverse itself in awarding the $35 billion contract.

Defense officials stressed that the new bidding process will be as transparent as possible as they released a draft "request for proposal" to the two companies wanting to build the next generation aerial refuelers, Boeing and a partnership of Northrop Grumman and EADS, a French concern that owns Airbus.

"We are addressing them in a very measured and serious way to ensure that we in fact can execute this procurement in a manner that is fair to both parties and in the best interest of the warfighters and the taxpayers," Shay Assad, director of defense procurement and acquisitions policy at the Pentagon, told reporters Wednesday.

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The formal bidding process will begin by October, with a final decision due out by the first of the year, says Mr. Assad. The planes won't be built and flying for a few years.

The new process does not on its face give favor to either competitor. Defense officials say it creates a level playing field for each to bid on the contract this fall.

But backers of Boeing on Capitol Hill, who have railed day and night against the original decision to award the contract to the Northrop Grumman-EADS partnership, saying it essentially exported jobs overseas, remain concerned. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, who represents thousands of Boeing workers, says this new request for proposal doesn't do justice to the issues raised by the government auditors. In particular, critics are concerned that the draft document allows "extra credit" if the plane design offered up is able to unload more fuel faster.

"After going round after round on one of our military's most important and critically needed procurements, this draft RFP changes the rules of the game in overtime," said Senator Murray in a prepared statement.

Murray says the timeline the Pentagon now faces to avoid further delay is "simply unrealistic."

The road to building a new tanker airplane for the Air Force has not been smooth. After a controversial leasing deal with Boeing was unraveled by Sen. John McCain, among others, the Air Force opened bidding on a new contract to replace its aging fleet of tankers, which can refuel aircraft midair.

Earlier this year, the Air Force awarded the contract to the Northrop Grumman-EADS partnership, sparking charges on Capitol Hill that the decision would cost American jobs. Boeing protested the decision, then in June received a major boost from the Government Accountability Office, which found errors in the Air Force award.

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