Gates said he believed the existing fleet of tankers, which average close to 50 years old, could be maintained to meet the current demands being placed on them. But Air Force officials have become increasingly concerned that the high rate of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was taking a significant toll on the aging craft.
The Air Force had hoped the most recent yearlong competition, in which Northrop was the victor, would wipe away the stain of scandal that surrounded the program. Those hopes were dashed in July when the GAO ruled that the Air Force had improperly given Northrop too much credit for parts of its bid while not giving Boeing enough credit for some of its plane's capabilities.
The Pentagon at the time considered holding a snap competition that would have focused largely on price. But Gates decided against that route, hoping that because the GAO had ruled against only a few irregularities, it would be possible to get modestly revised proposals from the two companies in just a few months.
Instead, both sides intensified their campaigns, which featured increasingly vitriolic accusations from the companies and their congressional water carriers.
"We still believe a replacement tanker is needed as soon as possible, and we hope this will only result in a delay of several months and that the next administration can quickly take this up in a less contentious atmosphere and get a deal done," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary.