So much for the split-the-baby approach to deciding which company will build the next generation of refueling tankers. At the urging of the Obama administration, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who heads the key defense appropriation subcommittee, has dropped his idea of dividing the contract between Boeing on one side and Northrop Grumman and Airbus, a European company, on the other.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it would be cheaper to have the rivals compete for the contract, which could total anywhere from $35 billon to $100 billion depending on its length. Murtha’s political solution was always problematic, because it would mean half of the nearly 180 planes would come from a company that was the runner-up in meeting the military’s specifications.
The nation needs the best possible fleet, regardless of whose feelings get hurt.
And so the battle is joined again, with the Boeing states, including Washington, facing off against the Northrop Grumman states, chiefly Alabama. This should heat up soon, because the Defense Department is expected to issue a draft of its specifications by the end of the month. Then each bidder can submit suggested revisions over the following 60 days. A formal “bid for proposal” would then be issued toward the end of summer.
Specifications on the features and capacity of the aircraft were keys to determining the selection during the controversial first round, in which Northrop Grumman was picked, but Boeing successfully challenged the process, creating the latest hitch in the effort to replace the aging tanker fleet, which began early this decade.
The Pentagon needs to get on with this. The KC-135 tankers have been slated for replacement for a long time. A Greater Spokane Inc. delegation and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., recently visited the Pentagon and were told that the tanker project was the No. 1 priority.
In this contest, a fair process is paramount to allaying concerns that the fix is in. The Government Accountability Office found significant irregularities last time which undermined the credibility of the selection. For instance, Northrop Grumman was told early on that it needed to make an adjustment to meet a key Defense Department requirement. Boeing was told that it met the standard, but that turned out to be false. In the end, that shortcoming was one of the major strikes against Boeing.
Process is boring, but this enormously important project demands fairness and attention to detail. Here’s hoping this summer brings about an acceptable resolution to a problem that has stretched on far too long.