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Pentagon relaunches contest for aerial refueling tanker contract

September 26, 2009|Julie Johnsson

The race to win one of the largest military deals ever awarded kicked off Friday, when Defense Department officials unveiled the arcane criteria they will use to purchase a fleet of aerial refueling tankers from Northrop Grumman Corp. or Boeing Co.

But what was once a sprint has become a marathon as the Pentagon attempts for a fourth time to replace its fleet of 415 Eisenhower-era tankers through contracts expected to total more than $100 billion.

The Air Force said it would be "crystal clear" in its requirements for new tankers to avoid errors from previous selection processes. The service also now wants a plane that's war-ready on Day One.

Century City-based Northrop and its partner European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., parent of Airbus, are offering a tanker based on the Airbus A330.

Northrop said it would review the draft request for bids and provide comments to the Air Force soon.

Chicago-based Boeing said it would conduct a detailed review of the service's request to assess which plane it would offer -- the 767-based tanker, the larger 777-based tanker, or perhaps both.

The companies and lawmakers have 60 days to comment on the Air Force's proposal before a final version is released.

The process that started in 2001 to modernize the half- century-old planes that function as aerial gas stations has made its mark for controversy, with an ethics scandal that ended with jail terms for Boeing executives and countless skirmishes on Capitol Hill over jobs, patriotism and free trade.

Defense Department officials pledged to run a competition that was fair and transparent as they gave the bidders, members of Congress and the press an overview of the draft request for proposal. The Air Force hopes to announce the winner by mid-2010.

They also seek to avoid a replay of last year's debacle, when a decision to award the contract to Northrop and the parent of Airbus was reversed amid a firestorm of negative publicity. After Boeing protested the result, the Government Accountability Office found that the contracting process had been compromised by "significant errors."

The renewed contest started to attract another round of controversy.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said he would push to increase the number of tankers built annually to 36 jets rather than the 15 to be proposed by the government.

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jjohnsson@tribune.com

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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