Apr 21 2009

US senator meets with Pentagon arms chief nominee

Senator Richard Shelby said he was encouraged by his meeting Monday with President Barack Obama's nominee to become the Pentagon's chief weapons buyers, but was keeping a hold on the nomination for now.

Shelby and Senator Jeff Sessions, the two Republican senators from Alabama, are holding up a vote by the full Senate on the nomination of Ashton Carter to become defense undersecretary for acquisition, until their concerns over a long-delayed aerial refueling plane competition are addressed.

Shelby met with Carter Monday to discuss the issue.

"I was encouraged by the meeting today with Dr. Carter. He stated that he has no other interest than acquiring the best tanker at the best value, and that cost must not be the only criteria," Shelby said in a statement.

He welcomed Carter's "commitment to crafting the acquisition in a fair, open, and transparent manner, as well as his assurance that there will be an opportunity to review and comment on tanker criteria as the process goes forward."

But he said he would keep a hold on Carter's nomination until after he had discussed the issue "in greater detail" with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, adding, "It is imperative that our warfighter receive the most capable tanker possible."

Spokesman Jonathan Graffeo said Shelby's discussion with Gates would determine whether he lifted his hold on the nomination. Gates told reporters last week that he expected movement on the nomination soon.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved Carter's nomination earlier this month, but it cannot be voted on by the full Senate until Shelby and Sessions lift their hold.

Both men represent Alabama, where Northrop Grumman Corp , had planned to build the refueling tankers under a contract awarded last February, along with its European subcontractor, Airbus parent EADS.

Gates canceled the contract last year after government auditors upheld a protest filed by Boeing Co.

The Pentagon plans to launch a new tanker competition this summer, and hopes to award a contract next year.

It will be the Air Force's third attempt to replace its aging fleet of KC-135 refueling planes, which are more than 50 years old on average. Congress in 2004 killed the first bid after an Air Force plan to lease and buy 100 Boeing 767s failed amid a major procurement scandal.

Gates scrapped the revamped competition, initially won by Northrop, after congressional auditors found problems in the Air Force's handling of the competition.

If confirmed, Carter, a Harvard University professor and former assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, would replace John Young as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Carol Bishopric)