Sep 11 2008

Pentagon scraps aerial-refueling tanker competition until after presidential election

Birmingham News

By Mary Orndorff

A $35 billion contract to build refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force, once in Alabama's grasp, slipped further away Wednesday when the Pentagon decided to punt the deal to the next administration. The move prompted enraged members of Congress to lash out at the secretary of defense for the sudden turnabout.

"It is indefensible for us to tell our war fighters that they're going to have to wait even more years over this silly ineptitude by the Pentagon," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks.

As they gathered for their routine lunch at the Capitol, Alabama's members of Congress argued that replacing 50-year-old tankers was a national security priority too great to succumb to the political calendar.

"It makes me think they flunked a mighty big test of competence ... so it's not only disappointing but it's very hard to comprehend, much less to explain," said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, in whose district the Northrop Grumman-EADS partnership planned to build the plane.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Wednesday morning that the competition between Northrop Grumman Corp.-EADS and Boeing Co. would be canceled and the decision about which company will build the next generation of refueling tankers would be left to whoever takes office in January.

Sixty days ago, Gates assumed control of the troubled competition from the Air Force and told Congress a final decision would be made by the end of the year. The Air Force in February chose the Northrop Grumman-EADS plane, and in June, government auditors overturned the award because of problems in the bid process, which prompted Gates' intervention.

A regional battle:

The drama has gripped the defense industry and divided Congress along regional lines, pitting Boeing supporters in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest against Northrop Grumman-EADS supporters in the Southeast. At stake are high-paying jobs and one of the largest economic development prizes in history.

Gates said the seven-year debacle has become complex and emotional and needed a cooling-off period.

"It is my judgment that in the time remaining to us, we can no longer complete a competition that would be viewed as fair and objective in this highly charged environment," he said.

Those from Alabama say Wednesday's development is proof that politics infiltrated what should have been a professional, military decision about which plane is better for the Air Force and the taxpayer.

"I think any time that you put politics or suppliers' needs above the war fighter, you're seriously misguided," Gov. Bob Riley said.

Boeing's advocates had complained that the Pentagon's newly reworked bid request was unfair to their smaller plane and that they needed more time to consider offering a larger plane capable of offloading more fuel.

On Wednesday, they were relieved to get that time.

"This pause is a reality check on a procurement process that got very complicated and a little muddled," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., briefly addressed Murray Wednesday morning before a meeting on 2009 Defense Department appropriations. "You got more time, didn't you Patty? It's what you wanted."

But Shelby was critical of the delay.

"If we're going to project force in this troubled world, which it is, you can't project force with aircraft without refueling tankers, the most modern and best fleet," he said.

Aging fleet:

Alabama-based advocates of Northrop Grumman-EADS also complained that Gates reversed what had been Pentagon doctrine for years: that the aging tanker fleet was in desperate condition and needed to be replaced as soon as possible. Wednesday, Gates said "the current KC-135 fleet can be adequately maintained to satisfy Air Force missions for the near future."

"Not only is this shift in position unsupported by any evidence, it is too low a standard," said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he did not get an adequate explanation for the Pentagon's decision on Wednesday.

"The secretary of defense just took the easy out," Sessions said.

There also was talk Wednesday of Congress intervening more directly into the tanker bidding process, possibly by trying to settle the dispute and split the contract between the two industry giants.

"I wonder now if we might ought to talk about that," said Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville. "It ought to be at least part of the discussion."

Across Alabama, economic developers have been rooting for Mobile to land the tanker contract, because it would elevate the state's aerospace industry with spinoff work and related jobs. There has been a concerted effort to attract tanker suppliers, and Riley and others recently pitched the state to those companies at a major air show outside London.

"We will continue to work with the suppliers that have been identified by EADS and Northrop Grumman and maintain those relationships in hopes that we will be able to attract them into the state when this decision is finally made," Alabama Development Office Director Neal Wade said.

Mobile Mayor Sam Jones said he still expects his city to become an aircraft assembly site, whether it is the Air Force tanker or a commercial plane. EADS has said it would build Airbus commercial freighters in Mobile if it won the tanker work, and there has been speculation the company would push forward on that plan, even without the military contract.