WASHINGTON — Congress needs to investigate the Air Force's decision to use European airplanes to replace the aging U.S. fleet of aerial tankers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday, adding that the $40 billion contract for 179 planes "raised serious questions."
As the fallout from the contract award spread across Capitol Hill, some congressional aides suggested Monday that the Air Force may have misled The Boeing Co. into basing its bid on the wrong-sized aircraft.
Lawmakers from Washington state and Kansas, where much of the work on the Boeing tanker was to have been done, urged the Air Force to brief Boeing by the end of the week on its decision to award the contract to Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co.. Their bid would use an Airbus A330 for the tanker. Airbus is Boeing's prime competitor in the international commercial airplane market.
The Air Force had indicated that it would brief Boeing on March 12, almost two weeks after the contract was awarded and just before Congress is to adjourn for a weeklong recess. Boeing has said it won't decide whether to file an appeal until it's briefed by the Air Force.
The rhetoric continued to escalate Monday. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the contract "puts our war-fighting ability in the hands of a foreign government," and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the Air Force had used an "Alice in Wonderland" approach in awarding the contract to a French aerospace company with no experience in making tankers.
On Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne is scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said the House Appropriations defense subcommittee or another panel could hold a hearing on the contract by week's end.
Dicks talked with Wynne on Monday, calling the contract a "disappointment," said an aide to the congressman, George Behan. Roberts also met with Air Force officials.
"I can tell you it was a pretty hot meeting," Roberts said afterward.
Others saw it differently.
"If the U.S. Air Force and members of Congress wanted the tanker to be a job creation program for Boeing, they should have eschewed a competition and sole-sourced the contract in the first place," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
Others also said that the EADS-Northrop Grumman bid was virtually a slam-dunk, outperforming Boeing in four of the five measures considered, including mission capability, past performance and cost-price.
Boeing had no comment Monday.
The wings, tail and fuselage of the A330 tankers would be built in Europe, with final assembly at a plant that EADS plans to build in Mobile, Ala.
The Boeing tanker is based on a 767 airframe that would be built in Everett, Wash., with the refueling equipment added and flight testing conducted in Wichita, Kan.
Pelosi said the contract raised a number of questions, including the implications of using a foreign-built airplane for essential military missions and whether sufficient consideration was given to the impact of the award on U.S. jobs and technological base.
"Given the ramifications of this decision for the United States, the Air Force must explain to Congress how (the contract) meets the long-term needs of our military and the American people," the California representative said in a statement.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers called for comprehensive legislation that would prohibit the United States from contracting with a foreign company that has been subsidized by foreign governments and freeze future awards.
Boeing has long accused Airbus of receiving billions of dollars in illegal subsidies from the governments of Britain, France and Germany for the research and development of its airplanes. The United States has accused Airbus of receiving "launch subsidies" in a case pending before the World Trade Organization. The Europeans filed a counter-case accusing Boeing of receiving subsidies.
In awarding the contract last week, Air Force officials indicated they had picked the Airbus A330 because it was bigger and could carry more fuel, passengers and cargo.
Boeing had been prepared to offer its bigger 777 as a tanker, but instead bid the 767 because the Air Force indicated it wanted a medium-sized plane, said Behan, Rep. Dicks' aide.
"All of us thought the 767 met or exceeded all the requirements," Behan said. "If the preference was for a larger aircraft, Boeing would have offered the 777. This may be grounds for a protest."
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group of Fairfax, Va., said that could be a possibility.
"Obviously people could frame it that way," he said. "There could be some truth to it. But Northrop Grumman-EADS did a good job in promoting a bigger tanker."
"The Northrop-EADS offer was deemed much better in virtually every area," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based military think-tank.
Among others things, Thompson said, Air Force officials concluded that EADS-Northrop Grumman could have 49 tankers operating by 2013, while Boeing would only have 19.