WASHINGTON — Boeing supporters on Capitol Hill have won an important round in the continuing fight over a $35 billion contract for Air Force refueling tankers as an influential congressman has dropped his plan to split the buy between the American aerospace company and its European competitor.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, has decided that he won't include a split-buy provision in a supplemental spending bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other priorities. The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the $94 billion bill Thursday.
"Murtha talked about it, but he said he wouldn't do it if I couldn't live with it," said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, who's the No. 2 Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee and has worked with Murtha for years. "I told him I couldn't and he honored that commitment."
Murtha's office had no comment Wednesday. Dicks, however, confirmed that Murtha had pulled the plug on the dual-buy proposal.
Dicks said he's confident that he has the votes to defeat any move to split the tanker buy if the idea is resurrected when the bill comes to the House floor.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., another member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, said the Pentagon needed to "move expeditiously" to solicit bids and procure a tanker.
"The United States Air Force, the American people and the American economy need an American-built tanker built by an American company with American workers," Tiahrt said.
In the Senate, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she has told Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, that she opposes a split buy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates also has opposed any move to split the contract for 179 new aerial refueling tankers between Boeing and a Northrop Grumman-European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. team. Gates has said it would be a mistake that could cost taxpayers billions of additional dollars and needlessly complicate the Air Force's tanker program.
Gates has indicated that he'll re-launch the competition to start replacing the nation's fleet of aerial tankers, the oldest of which date to the Eisenhower era, this summer. An earlier decision awarding the contract to Northrop-EADS was thrown out after a successful protest by Boeing. Eventually, the contract could be worth an estimated $100 billion.
Northrop-EADS has said it would support a split buy, while Boeing has shown little enthusiasm.
EADS, the parent company of Airbus, has long been seeking a toehold in the U.S. defense market, and even splitting the tanker contract would provide it with a major boost. If Boeing loses, it would leave the company without a prime Air Force contract.
Boeing plans on using a 767 airframe for its tanker. The 767 would be assembled in Everett, Wash., and modified as a tanker in Wichita, Kan. At stake are 9,000 jobs in Washington state and about 1,000 in Kansas.
Northrop-EADS would use an Airbus A330 airframe and the first nine or so would be assembled at the Airbus company's plant in Toulouse, France. EADS has said it eventually would build an assembly plant in Mobile, Ala., employing 1,500 if it wins the contract. Work on the plant has been on hold.
For weeks, Murtha has been talking up a split-buy approach, saying it would be the fastest way to start delivering tankers to the Air Force. Under the original plan, the first tankers would be delivered to the Air Force by 2013, but that deadline has slipped.
The Air Force had planned on purchasing 12 to 15 tankers a year. Murtha wanted to divide the buy while upping the number of planes delivered annually to 24.
Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale said his company had been following Murtha's effort, but its attention was focused elsewhere.
"We've been watching the idea of a dual award being pushed around, but we have been preparing for a winner-take-all (competition)," Barksdale said.
Northrop Grumman spokesman Randy Belote said his company would support either a winner-take-all approach or a divided buy.
"We are prepared to compete for the tanker contract in a fair and fully transparent capabilities-based, best-value selection process, free from political interference," he said.
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