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No more do-overs for Air Force tanker

Post by Kim Bradford on March 21, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
March 20, 2010 3:00 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

At some point, the Air Force will replace its Eisenhower-era fleet of aerial refueling tankers. Just don’t count on it happening anytime soon.

On Friday, Pentagon officials said they will consider extending a May deadline to allow a European aviation giant to bid for the $35 billion tanker contract.

European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. isn’t sure it wants to bid, mind you. EADS, the parent company of Boeing rival Airbus, is just looking for more time to weigh its options.

Three additional months, to be exact. Three additional months, in a controversy-riddled saga that’s been unfolding for nearly nine years. By the time the Air Force could get around to awarding a contract, the process would have stretched nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, Air Force pilots are flying tankers that are a half-century old. Every year that goes by without a new refueling tanker imperils the global range of the U.S. air fleet.

But EADS isn’t really seeking a short delay. It’s looking for signs that the Defense Department is cowed by protectionist charges and willing to make concessions to get EADS to compete. The company alleges the latest competition is stacked against it. EADS’ American partner, Northrop Grumman, backed out earlier this month, saying the military’s specifications favored Boeing’s medium-sized 767 tanker over a larger Airbus model.

Northrop’s exit is the reason EADS says it needs more time to regroup. But EADS has known that Northrop was wavering for months.
It’s also no surprise that the military’s request for proposals should favor Boeing’s offering. The last go-around – launched after a bid to lease tankers from Boeing crashed – also was said to skew Boeing’s way.

The 767 has built-in advantages over the Airbus A330: It can refuel all U.S. Air Force aircraft and land at more runways, for starters.

Only through the Air Force’s bungling – some would say sabotage – of the bidding process did EADS-Northrop Grumman emerge the winner last time. The winner, that is, until government auditors found major flaws in the way the Air Force had evaluated the competing proposals.

The chance to get a Boeing competitor in the mix and possibly save taxpayers money might justify stringing the process out another three months. But what EADS is really after would take a whole lot longer than three months. Changing the rules of the game yet again would lead to years, not months, of delay.

The Air Force doesn’t have more years to wait for a tanker originally scheduled for delivery in 2006.

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