Air Force tanker decision likely delayed by Senate hearing

A Senate hearing to probe the release of sensitive company data by the Air Force likely will delay a KC-X aerial tanker award until March — or later.

Defense industry sources told The Hill in recent weeks it was increasingly clear an award in for a $35 billion, 179-plane competition was unlikely to come until mid-February.

But now, there is mounting evidence that an award will not be possible until March, or perhaps later, says Loren Thompson, a defense insider who is the COO at the Lexington Institute, citing conversations with executives.

The driving force behind this latest delay is a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing slated for Jan. 27. At that session, the panel will seek answers from Air Force officials about a mishap that saw the service send data about EADS's and Boeing's tanker bids.

The service has said it was a cleric error. Both companies -- and their champions in Congress -- have raised concerns. Air Force leaders have publicly said they are worried the timing of the hearing could be problematic, hinting a contract announcement is close.

"The Air Force has again delayed a key meeting with rival tanker teams that was supposed to set the stage for submission of final offers from each team," Thompson said.

"The meeting had been expected in January, but key personnel involved in running the competition have now been called away to prepare" for the hearing, Thompson said.

Those meetings have now been pushed to early February, which also delays the service's call for final bids.

"In other words, the Air Force will not even begin reviewing final offers until around Feb. 20 at the earliest," Thompson said.

From that point, the service's selection team will pick a winner, setting off possibly weeks of reviews by Air Force and Pentagon brass.

"So announcement of an award is nearly impossible in February, and may not occur even in March," Thompson said. "Past experience suggests that just getting all the key players in a room to ratify the decision could take weeks, given schedule conflicts."