An assembly mechanic works on the interior of a Boeing 767 on the assembly line at the company’s plant in Everett, Wash. Boeing is considering bailing out of the politically charged bidding for a $35 billion contract to build aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force. - AP

Boeing threatens to quit Air Force tanker competition

WASHINGTON — Boeing Co. is considering bailing out of a politically charged competition for a $35 billion contract to build aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force, if it does not receive an additional four months from the Pentagon to assemble its offer.

The aerospace manufacturer said Friday it also may file a protest on the final bids request — expected to be released early next week by the Pentagon — which could further delay an award. No final decision will be made until Boeing has a chance to review the final request, said company spokesman Daniel Beck.

"It's very clear to us this is a new competition," said Beck. "Clearly, the requirements have changed and the Defense Department is essentially asking for a different kind of plane from the first competition."

Boeing lost the initial contract in February to Northrop Grumman Corp. and its partner Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. The competition was reopened after government auditors found "significant errors" in the Air Force's decision. The revamped competition will focus on eight areas where the Government Accountability Office found problems with the initial process.

Northrop Grumman Chief Operating Officer and President Wes Bush criticized Boeing's request for additional time to revise its latest offer, saying it will only cause more delays and higher costs for the taxpayer.

"We've both had more than three years to put forth our very best tanker design," Bush said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "By coming out and saying, 'We need another six months,' Boeing seems to be openly admitting that their tanker does not measure up to what the Air Force needs."

Still, Boeing's latest tactic nearly replicates an approach taken by Northrop during the early stages of the first competition in 2007. At that time, Northrop threatened to walk away from the table, unless the Air Force revised its requirements so the competition did not favor Boeing.

A Boeing decision not to submit another bid could jeopardize Pentagon efforts to maintain a two-team competition to replace 179 Eisenhower-era refueling planes. The deal — one of the largest in Pentagon history — is the first of three contracts worth up to $100 billion to replace nearly 600 refueling tankers over the next 30 years.

"This is a strange situation moving forward," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the Teal Group in Virginia. "The Pentagon is quite mindful that Congress is more likely to go to bat for Boeing if this becomes a sole source contract. I can't imagine Boeing losing anything from taking this approach."

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