Rep. Murtha: Possible Northrop withdrawal 'blow' to tanker deal

Northrop Grumman’s potential withdrawal from a competition to build Air Force refueling aircraft would be a “blow” to the program, according to the House’s top defense appropriator.

“I can’t imagine they can do it without competition,” said Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

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Murtha said he is scheduled to meet with Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter on Thursday to discuss several issues, including Northrop’s threat to pull out of the tanker competition.

If Northrop pulls out, Boeing would be the only company bidding for the contract. That would run afoul of congressional preferences for competition on all major defense contracts.


Murtha also took the opportunity Wednesday to press for his vision of how the tanker program should play out.

For months, Murtha has said that both Boeing and a team made up of Northrop Grumman and EADS North America should have a hand in the contract.

Under Murtha’s plan, three planes would be built each month with the winning firm building two of those planes and the second best manufacturing the additional one.

In a letter to Carter on Tuesday, Northrop threatened to pull out of the competition to win a $40 billion contract to build the refueling tanker. The defense giant argued the bidding process was stacked against it and said that without changes to the selection criteria, it could not submit an offer.

Northrop President and Chief Operating Officer Wes Bush said his company has determined it cannot submit a bid for the contract unless defense officials “substantially” address Northrop’s concerns that the criteria for the project offer an unfair advantage to other possible manufacturers.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Wednesday that “both of the principal competitors are highly qualified” and that the Pentagon “would like to see competition continue in this process.”

Gates also defended the request for proposals as “even-handed.”

“We promised a fair and highly transparent process. […] If we were totally locked into not changing anything, we wouldn't have gone through the comment period. So we will look at the comments that have been made, and make a judgment at that point,” Gates said during a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee after being pressed by one of Northrop and EADS’s biggest supporters, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Gates appeared before the committee to testify on the Afghanistan strategy and newly announced U.S troop increase in the South Asian country.