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Editorial: Tanker bid process needs firm conditions

Just when we thought the tortuous journey to a new generation of aerial refueling tankers was coming to an end, a new twist emerges.

Northrop Grumman-EADS dropped out of the bidding early this month, saying the Pentagon’s guidelines and conditions favored the smaller plane Boeing was proposing. This left Boeing as the sole competitor, with a May 10 bidding deadline looming.

But now the European company EADS, which is the parent company to Airbus, says it may want to submit its own bid. It is asking the Pentagon for a three-month extension, claiming that it will take that long to file the paperwork.

The Pentagon appears amenable to the extension, and a competitor for Boeing could help keep costs down. However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ought to make it clear that the new deadline does not mean a new blueprint.

On Wednesday, he told Congress that the Air Force has no plans to change its requirements. That is good news, because many people fear that the extended deadline is designed to get the Pentagon and the Obama administration to cave in to European pressure to alter the plans.

Ever since Northrop Grumman-EADS dropped out, European leaders have been decrying the presumed protectionism that has made Boeing the front-runner. The leaders of Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Spain are reportedly prepared to send a joint letter to President Barack Obama that states the case for EADS.

Boeing backers are pointing to a recent World Trade Organization ruling that European companies have unfairly subsidized Airbus, but Gates told Congress on Wednesday that this ruling would have no bearing on the tanker decision.

Fair enough. Boeing has a checkered past, too.

As long as the requirements for the tanker stay the same, we can support a three-month extension. Two bidders are better than one, though few analysts give EADS much of a chance without a U.S. partner.

But if the Pentagon capitulates to European pressure and changes the conditions of the contract, then it can expect a fierce backlash that could delay the much-needed planes interminably.

That would be unacceptable. These are Eisenhower-era planes that are in dire need of replacement. The Pentagon needs to set a firm deadline, remain committed to the current requirements and at long last make a final decision.

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