WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Wednesday requested new bids on a $35 billion contract for aerial-refueling tankers, and Boeing supporters on Capitol Hill said the highly technical document apparently favored a European airplane.
Even outside analysts said the Defense Department had tweaked the "request for proposals" to respond to the concerns of congressional auditors in a way that would bolster the larger European tanker over the medium-size Boeing tanker. With initial bids due in roughly seven weeks, Boeing won't have time to prepare an offer using one of its larger planes.
"It's obviously stacked against Boeing," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based research center that focuses on national-security and defense issues. "It appears to favor a larger aircraft in a way the original did not. But the timeline doesn't give Boeing an opportunity to prepare a bid for a larger plane."
The Air Force earlier had awarded the contract for 179 tankers to Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. After Boeing filed a protest, the Government Accountability Office concluded that there were "significant errors" in the contract award and recommended a new competition.
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In announcing the request for new bids, Shay Assad, the Pentagon's director of defense procurement and acquisition policy, said the department was addressing the GAO's concerns in a "measured, serious way, in a way that will be fair to both (bidders) and in the best interest of the war fighters and the taxpayers."
However, critics said the bid request favored Northrop-EADS because it would, among other things, give "extra credit" for being able to carry more fuel.
"This is unacceptable," Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said in a telephone interview from Washington state, where the Boeing tanker's airframe would be assembled. "All they have tried to do is vindicate their earlier decision. This was done by their lawyers and political types."
Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., whose district includes Boeing's Wichita plant, where the tankers would undergo final assembly, said he continued to have "strong reservations" about the bid proposal.
"It is imperative this new draft request for proposals be fair, unbiased and provides a fair opportunity for the American workers," Tiahrt said.
Dicks said he doubted that Congress would let the latest bid proposal stand. The House Appropriations defense subcommittee, which Dicks serves on, already has taken steps to bar the Pentagon from seeking a larger tanker without rewriting the entire bid proposal.
Lawmakers from Alabama, where the Northrop-EADS tanker would be assembled, said they were satisfied with the Pentagon's new bid proposal.
"I will continue to insist that this competition is conducted without political interference so that it leads to the selection of the best aircraft, based on the merits and capabilities of the respective proposals," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a statement.
Assad said the draft request for bids would be finalized by the middle of August, and Boeing and Northrop-EADS would have until Oct. 1 to submit preliminary bids. Final proposals will be due Dec. 1, and a decision is expected by New Year's Day.
Because of the earlier problems, the office of Defense Secretary Robert Gates has assumed control of the tanker competition from the Air Force, though Assad said the Air Force still would play a significant role.
"We have provided clear and unambiguous insight into the technical factors we will evaluate," Assad said, adding that the changes didn't represent a "major modification" of the bid request.
Boeing and Northrop-EADS said they were reviewing the draft bid proposal.
In a statement, Boeing hinted that the intended mission of the tanker may have been changed but it was "to early to offer any details of Boeing's path forward."
Randy Belote, a spokesman for Northrop-EADS, said his team would evaluate the bid request to ensure that there would be a "fair and nonpolitical evaluation" of the competing proposals.
Either side could appeal the Pentagon's action, which could delay the competition into next year, when a new administration will take office.
The contract eventually could be worth $100 million as the Air Force replaces its fleet of Cold War-era tankers.