Oct 09 2009

Shelby rips Pentagon over tanker bidding guidelines

Mobile Press Register

By GEORGE TALBOT

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, on Thursday ripped top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for their handling of the Air Force tanker competition, accusing them of tilting the selection criteria in favor of Boeing Co.

"One would think that our Air Force's top priority would be to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the best, most capable equipment. Clearly that is not the case," Shelby said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Shelby and other Alabama political leaders are pressing the Pentagon to release pricing data from Boeing's bid in the last round of competition with rival Northrop Grumman Corp., which is proposing to assemble its tankers in Mobile.

Los Angeles-based Northrop won the potential $40 billion contract last year, but the deal unraveled when the Government Accountability Office, acting on a protest filed by Chicago-based Boeing, found problems with the way the Air Force made its selection.

Boeing, under standard procedure in government contracting, received details of Northrop's winning bid soon after the decision was announced in February 2008.

After the GAO issued its ruling that June, Gates canceled the deal with Northrop and ordered a rematch.

The Pentagon released its proposed bidding guidelines last month, and has rejected Northrop's requests to see details of Boeing's losing bid.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, proposed an amendment to the 2010 defense spending bill that would have blocked funding for new tankers, the Air Force's top priority, until the Pentagon released the pricing data to both bidders.

But the amendment was not included in the Senate's version of the bill approved late Tuesday.

Mobile Mayor Sam Jones called on Gates to release the Boeing data, saying the failure to do so "would undermine public confidence ... (and) invite further protests and delays."

"Unfortunately, the competition appears to be tainted from the start," Jones wrote in an Oct. 1 letter to Gates. "To the same extent that Northrop's pricing information was compromised, Boeing's should be made available also."

Shelby criticized Gates for pulling the plug on the 2008 deal with Northrop. That decision, he said "placed politics and business interests over the interests of the warfighter."

"While Secretary Gates may have characterized this decision as a 'cooling off' period, it sent the clear message that only a Boeing tanker will be acceptable," Shelby said. "The defense acquisition policy was unmistakable: No Boeing, no tanker."

Pentagon officials have said the Boeing pricing data is outdated and not relevant to the current contest. They have proposed sweeping changes to the Air Force's selection criteria, simplifying the list of requirements for the new planes and placing a heavier emphasis on price.

The companies are about two weeks into a 60-day period, during which they can submit comments about the Air Force's proposed guidelines. Military leaders said they hope to issue a final request for bids later this year and pick a winner by summer.

The new tankers are needed to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers, which average nearly 50 years in service. The workhorse KC-135s are used to refuel fighter jets, cargo planes and other military aircraft in flight.