Gates: Air Force to pick tanker fleet

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced on Wednesday that the Air Force will be in charge of selecting a new fleet of refueling tanker aircraft.

Gates stressed that his own office will keep close tabs on the selection process.

“I don’t need to belabor the importance of getting this done soon and done right, and my office will continue to have a robust oversight role,” Gates said in prepared remarks to the Air Force Association’s annual meeting. “We are committed to the integrity of the selection process, and cannot afford the kind of letdowns, parochial squabbles, and corporate food-fights that have bedeviled this effort in the past.”
Pentagon leadership last year sidelined the Air Force and took control of the $35 billion contract, after Boeing successfully protested with the Government Accountability Office the Air Force’s award of the contract to a rival team of Northrop Grumman and EADS, the parent company of Airbus.
The tanker program has been engulfed in a political storm for several years. The renewed competition will spark a heated debate and lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill, pitting Boeing supporters against those who back Northrop Grumman and EADS.
The Air Force is expected to issue a draft request for proposals soon. Gates promised that draft will also be shared with lawmakers.
Gates, in his speech to the Air Force Association, expressed full confidence in the Air Force’s new leadership.
“The KC-X selection authority is in good hands with the service’s leadership team of Secretary [Michael] Donley and General [Norton] Schwartz,” Gates said. “Indeed, the Air Force is fortunate to have a deep bench of senior flag officers, including four combatant commanders. I depend greatly on their expert advice and strategic vision to fulfill my duties.”