WASHINGTON — The Air Force on Wednesday defended its decision to select a European airplane over a Boeing model to replace its aging fleet of aerial tankers even as a congressman alleged that changes were made in the bidding process to ensure there'd be competition for the $40 billion contract.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said the Air Force engaged in "bait and switch" tactics by first indicating that it wanted a medium-sized tanker, then opting for a larger one offered by Northrop Grumman-European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. Boeing would have offered its larger 777 rather than the 767 if it had known that the Air Force wanted a bigger plane, Dicks said.
"It cost Boeing the competition," Dicks said. "This contract is fatally flawed."
Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., said it was clear that the Air Force had switched the size tanker it wanted to ensure that Northrop-EADS would compete, and that existing laws and Pentagon rules put U.S. manufacturers at a disadvantage when bidding on major defense contracts.
"It's as plain as the nose on your face," Tiahrt said. "This was stacked against American manufacturers from the beginning."
Dicks, Tiahrt and others members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee criticized the tanker contract during a hearing. The subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., warned that Congress could always withhold funding if it decided the Air Force erred.
"This is as political as anything we do," Murtha said. "You have to remember, this subcommittee funds this program. All we have to do is stop the money and this program will not move forward."
Air Force officials insisted that the contract competition was "fair and open," saying they followed federal law. But the Air Force's top acquisitions official, Sue Payton, said she couldn't provide details because neither Boeing nor Northrop-EADS had been briefed on the outcome and the information remained sensitive and proprietary.
"We cannot jeopardize the government winning a protest with any comments made today," Payton said.
Payton said Northrop Grumman-EADS offered the better plane.
"Northrop Grumman brought its A game," she said.
As opposed to the chilly reception that Payton received in the House, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne was largely on friendly ground during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Wynne said Northrop-EADS was "clearly the better performer" in the nine key performance areas used to evaluate the bids. Northrop-EADS was also judged to be less costly "across the board."
Virginia Sen. John Warner, the panel's top Republican, said he intended to support the contract.
"I feel very strongly that Congress should not get into the business of trying to rewrite a contract," Warner said.
The Northrop-EADS tanker will use an Airbus A330, which are built in Toulouse, France. Airbus is Boeing's top competitor in the commercial airplane market. Final assembly of the tanker will take place at a new plant planned in Mobile, Ala. Major portions of the plane are built in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain. Northrop-EADS officials said 60 percent of the plane will be American made.
In a statement Wednesday, Northrop-EADS said that its tanker program would not result in any jobs being shipped overseas, that it will return "competitiveness" to the U.S. aerospace industry, that no sensitive technology will be transferred to Europe, and that other defense programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter use foreign suppliers.
Boeing officials, who will be briefed Friday by the Air Force, used a 767 for their tanker. The plane is built in Everett, Wash., with tanker equipment and flight testing planned for Wichita, Kan. Boeing said its tanker will be 85 percent American made.