Business

War of words flies higher than troubled Air Force tanker

Boeing Co. will try for the third time to get a tanker based on its 767 in the hands of U.S. Air Force pilots before the KC-135s parked at Fairchild Air Force Base collapse in place.

The company announcement Thursday was no surprise. Consensus opinion on an Air Force request for proposals released last month says the Boeing airplane fits better than a potential competitor based on the A330, an Airbus airframe that would be assembled in Mobile, Ala., by a Northrop Grumman Corp.-led consortium.

Northrop has not shown its hand, saying it wants to fully scrutinize the exhaustive RFP. The Pentagon, Airbus parent EADS and Alabama’s congressional delegation badly want Northrop to bid. The Pentagon hopes competing bids will result in a better price. EADS – the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. – badly needs a foothold in the United States. Alabama’s interest breaks down to jobs.

Boeing and Northrop split the first two go-rounds. The first, won by Boeing, was blatantly corrupted. The second went to Northrop, until Boeing successfully argued the Air Force had its thumbs on the scale when weighing the proposals.

Ferocious lobbying ensued; the pro-Northrop forces pushing an RFP that would favor a larger plane with more capabilities, Boeing’s minions supporting the smaller, more economical 767. The draft version leaned Boeing’s way, and the changes made in the final proposal did little to satisfy the concerns of Northrop and its backers.

Among the most irate is Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who Thursday berated Air Force Secretary Michael Donley during a budget hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Quoting repeatedly from – of all things – a Seattle Times report, Sessions said he was “deeply troubled” by the RFP process, and the perception “dirty politics” was a factor.

Asserting that he and other Alabamans had sought no special advantage, Sessions told Donley, “There was a dramatic change in the bid process after you took office.”

A little history on Donley: A former U.S. Army officer, he was appointed to the National Security Council by President Ronald Reagan. He held several positions under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, stepping aside a few months after President Bill Clinton took office. He re-upped at the request of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who made him director of administration and management.

In short, Donley is no tool of either President Barack Obama or the Democratic Party. He was having nothing of Session’s charges.

“This department has played it straight down the middle,” he said. “It has favored no one.”

That was not good enough for Sessions.

“This is not going to go away,” he said.

What “this” Sessions was referring to was not clear. Unless Northrop decides to bid or appeal, Mobile will be immobilized.

Maybe it was the blow to his pride. A year ago, Sessions had confidently assured Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce members at an Eggs and Issues breakfast the Government Accountability Office was unlikely to set aside the contract awarded to Northrop. Guess where some of those eggs are now.

Fellow Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, also a Republican, continues to block Obama nominees to Air Force or Defense Department posts to demonstrate his pique over the tanker bidding process.

This is an opportunity for Sessions, Shelby and every other member of congress – senator or representative, Republican or Democrat, Alabaman or Washingtonian – to let the Air Force do its job.

The demands on Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norman Schwartz, who also testified Thursday, are sobering. The tanker is just one item on a $44.14 billion Air Force shopping list that includes a new fighter, more transport capacity, satellite capability and cyber-security assets.

Meanwhile, parochial infighting keeps Fairchild personnel aloft in an aviation equivalent to the Studebaker. Honk if you think they deserve better.



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