Sessions seeks to force Pentagon on refueling aircraft

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is seeking to force Pentagon officials to release pricing information on a midair refueling tanker aircraft offered by Boeing last year.

Sessions introduced an amendment to the 2010 defense appropriations bill, now under debate on the Senate floor, that would prohibit the Pentagon from spending any money on the Air Force’s tanker program until Boeing’s pricing information is disclosed. The Air Force restarted the competition last Friday.

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Sessions's amendment comes in support of Boeing’s rival, Northrop Grumman. Northrop this week charged the Pentagon with giving Boeing an unfair advantage in the contentious competition to replace the Air Force’s aging midair refueling tankers.

Northrop argues that the Air Force disclosed its pricing information for the new tanker to Boeing last year, and that the Pentagon has declined repeated requests from Northrop for Boeing’s pricing information.

Northrop, teamed with EADS North America, won the tanker contract last February, but Boeing successfully protested that award with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The Pentagon reopened the competition last week.

“It is fundamentally unfair, and distorts any new competition, to provide such critical information to only one of the bidders. The company will continue to work with its customer to fully resolve this issue,” Paul Meyer, a Northrop vice president, said in a statement.

He said the competitive price information “takes on even greater importance” given the “predominant emphasis” placed on price in the competition for the tanker contract.

Northrop CEO Ron Sugar has sent two formal requests to the Pentagon asking, among other issues, why the Air Force last year disclosed pricing information and what exactly was disclosed. Sugar also pressed the Air Force to reciprocate and share Boeing’s pricing information for the previous competition.

In a briefing to lawmakers last week, Pentagon officials said that the Pentagon has looked into Northrop’s claim and found that the disclosure of pricing information was “in accordance with regulation and more importantly that it created no competitive advantage, because the data in question are inaccurate, outdated and not germane” to the government’s new selection criteria.

“The Air Force clearly and definitively dealt with this issue, and we look forward to our first meeting with them in this competition,” Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale said in a statement.

The Air Force usually debriefs the losing competitors after a contract award, and it is during such briefings that pricing information would have been disclosed.

Northrop officials on Thursday said that it is unclear whether the pricing information from the previous competition should be considered irrelevant.

“We really don't know if the pricing information is inaccurate or outdated; therefore, the Defense Department should provide us Boeing's comparable pricing data and we will decide for ourselves,” said Randy Belote, Northrop’s VP of communications. “If the Defense Department believes the pricing information is inaccurate, outdated and not germane to the present tanker competition, why the resistance?”

Northrop and EADS plan to offer the same Airbus 330 plane as the aircraft for the tanker. Boeing, meanwhile, is weighing the option of offering both its 767 aircraft, which it entered in the last competition, and its 777.

Northrop and EADS plan to assemble the new tankers in Mobile, Ala.