Air Force chief hints that decision on tanker could come soon

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley hinted Wednesday that the service is close to selecting a winner in the decade-long fight over a lucrative tanker contract. 

The battle between Boeing and EADS for the $35 billion, 179-plane contract took a new turn late last year when the Air Force inadvertently sent information about the rivals’ bids to each other in a “clerical error.” The Air Force said both companies recognized the mix-up and sent the packages back without looking at the documents.  

The reassurances from the Air Force have not kept lawmakers who want the contract work performed in their state from crying foul. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin has promised to publicly investigate the procedural stumble and the Air Force’s tanker acquisition process.

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But in a strong signal that a final decision on the contract is near, Donley said it might be difficult for the Air Force to provide the information that Levin is seeking.

“The source-selection [timing] could affect what we could provide to them in a hearing,” Donley said. 

Donley said service officials are working with Levin and the committee to determine what kind of information they want about the selection process, and whether a hearing can be held without interfering with a contract award.

Meanwhile, Donley also provided more details about which facilities and organizations the service will shutter and consolidate as part of Pentagon’s cost-cutting drive, moves guaranteed to garner attention on Capitol Hill.

Donley revealed that:

  • Air operations centers at Tindal Air Force Base, Fla., and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., will be combined.
  • The 19th Air Force, located at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, will be “inactivated.” 
  • The 13th Air Force at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, will be “combined” with U.S. Air Forces Pacific.
  • The 17th Air Force, headquartered in Germany, will be deactivated, with parts rolled into U.S. Air Forces Europe. 
  • The service also will combine separate Air Operations Centers at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany that now support U.S. European and Africa commands.

Lawmakers hailing from states where military organizations will be combined are expected to object to the moves.

One House aide said the Pentagon has the legal authority to make the organizational moves it is proposing as part of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s efficiencies initiative.

Still, “that very well could be one area where Gates’ effort meets some stiff resistance,” one former national security official said.

On Air Force acquisition programs, Donley confirmed a delay is probable for the date on which the conventional take-off variant of the F-35 fighter the service will join the operational fleet.

As a hedge against further F-35 delivery delays, the Air Force will use some of the $34 billion it found as part of the efficiencies effort to put new engines on existing F-16 fighters, Donley said.

Donley also added a few details about a new program announced last week to develop a new nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, saying it should join the fleet before existing B-1 and B-52 bombers are retired. He declined further comment on the specifics of a program timeline.

Pentagon officials and lawmakers in recent months have stressed the need to develop new military platforms faster and at a lower cost. For the new bomber, he said, “there will be an emphasis on affordability.”