Pentagon seeks to make tanker contest 'as fair as humanly possible'

Defense Department officials are trying to be “as fair as humanly possible” in the competition to replace the Air Force’s refueling tanker aircraft, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman have been going head to head for several years to win the approximately $35 billion tanker contract.

Northrop and its partner EADS North America in December threatened to pull out of the competition, arguing that the bidding process was stacked against them and that without changes to the selection criteria they could not submit an offer.

If the Northrop-EADS team pulls out, Boeing would be the only company bidding for the contract.

Morrell told reporters at a briefing Thursday that Pentagon officials are making adjustments to the request for proposals after the initial draft request elicited a number of comments from the companies and Congress. The Pentagon is expected to issue the final request for bids at the end of February.

Morrell strongly refuted any notion that officials are making adjustments to the request document to favor either of the competitors.

“I think the implication is that somehow we are making adjustments to favor one party or another because one party was threatening to abandon the competition,” he said. “I can tell you definitively that could not be any further from the truth.”

The adjustments to the request for proposals are being made to reflect “the fact that there were errors pointed out to us,” Morrell added.

Boeing has been in a lobbying and public relations war with Northrop and EADS, the parent company of Airbus, for years over the contract. The Air Force awarded the $35 billion contract to Northrop-EADS last year, but Boeing overturned that victory by successfully protesting the award with the Government Accountability Office. The Pentagon last fall reopened the competition and officials vowed to have a transparent selection process.

“We hope to God that however many contenders wish to bid see it as what it is intended to be: an honest, fair attempt to produce a competition that provides our warfighters with the best plane possible and the taxpayers with the best value for their money. That’s it. No more, no less,” Morrell said Thursday.