The Pentagon is considering extending the deadline for bids to replace its aging fleet of aerial refueling tankers after Airbus-parent European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. said it may go after the $35-billion contract on its own.
The possibility of another delay in awarding the contract adds a new dose of drama to the decade-long saga to replace the tankers, some of which are nearly 50 years old.
The European firm, known as EADS, has asked for an extension to the May 10 deadline after its U.S.-based partner, Northrop Grumman Corp., decided not to go after the contract. The decision left Chicago-based Boeing Co. as the sole bidder to build the planes that are used to refuel U.S. fighter jets and bombers in mid-flight.
EADS said it may be interested in pursuing the military contract -- one of the largest in U.S. history -- and asked the Pentagon to push back the cut-off date for the so-called request for proposal, which outlines the terms for the tanker and how contenders would be judged.
"EADS has asked that we extend the deadline, and we're in the process of considering that request," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. He did not say when a decision would be made but that it was considering EADS's request for a 90-day extension.
The possibility of an extension drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a longtime Boeing supporter.
"I am very disappointed that the Department of Defense is even considering giving in to Airbus and extending the hard deadline for tanker bids," she said in a statement. "I believe in a fair and open competition, but this is no time to put American service members and workers on hold while a foreign company waffles."
Since 2001, the Pentagon has been looking to replace its fleet of 415 Eisenhower administration-era aircraft. The contract for the job has been awarded -- and subsequently canceled -- twice. A procurement scandal scuttled the first deal, with Boeing, then drafting errors in the technical requirements for the project killed an agreement with Northrop.
Northrop decided last week to back out on the latest attempt to award the contract, saying the odds of winning the contract were stacked against its offer of a tanker based on the Airbus A330 commercial passenger jet. Northrop Chief Executive Wesley G. Bush said that the specifications "dramatically favors" Boeing's smaller design, which is based on its 767 commercial jetliner.
The decision set off a trans-Atlantic row, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy accusing the U.S. of protectionism.
Guy Hicks, a spokesman for the North American unit of EADS, said the company hadn't decided whether it would bid, but he said it would make an offer only if it got the extension.
"Getting a deadline extension is essential," he said. "Any consideration of competing is predicated on that."