Obama vows Air Force tanker selection to be ‘free and fair’

The controversy over one of the Pentagon’s most lucrative contracts has reached the levels of the White House and has spilled into international politics.  Obama made the comments at a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is visiiting the U.S.


In France, Sarkozy promised to have strong words for Obama with regard to the estimated $35 billion refueling tanker contract, according to European reports. 

The French and other European Union countries have accused the U.S. of protectionism after Northrop Grumman and partner EADS, a European conglomerate and the parent company of Airbus, announced earlier this month that they would not compete for the contract, arguing the bidding process would favor rival Boeing.

Now EADS is mulling whether to submit a solo bid. The company has already requested the Pentagon extend the deadline to submit bids by 90 days. The Pentagon has not yet decided whether to extend that deadline passed May 10, as was originally intended. EADS is expected to announce soon whether it is going to compete with Boeing for the contract.

When asked on Tuesday, Sarkozy told reporters he and Obama discussed the tanker issue. Sarkozy said he trusted Obama’s assurances that the selection process will be fair.

Obama countered that the trust is warranted and cautioned that the procurement decisions are made by the secretary of Defense and as a long-standing policy the president does not “meddle” is such decisions.

Northrop Grumman partnered with EADS and initially won the $35 billion contract for the tankers in February 2008. Boeing, however, successfully protested the award with the Government Accountability Office. Defense Secretary Robert Gates subsequently decided to cancel that award and start a new competition for 179 new aircraft to replace the Eisenhower-era tankers.