Pentagon under pressure to delay or divide Joint Strike Fighter contract

Supporters of the Boeing Co., bracing for yet another big loss, are pressuring the Pentagon to delay or divvy up a massive new contract for next-generation fighter jets to replace the military's existing wing of warplanes.

Allies of the aerospace giant fear that granting rival Lockheed Martin Corp. the entire $200 billion joint strike fighter contract would deal a devastating blow to Boeing, even as its commercial aircraft business continues to reel from last month's terrorist attacks.

Republican Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond and Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, both of Missouri, back a proposal to force the Pentagon to award the loser of the fighter jet contract with one- third of the project's manufacturing.

Others have urged the Defense Department to delay Friday's deadline for a decision.

"There is an increasing feeling that there should be a delay in that contract," said Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who spoke with senior Pentagon officials about the issue last week.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scheduled to announce the winner Friday after the financial markets close, his spokeswoman said Tuesday.

"It makes absolutely no sense to give the winner the whole contract," Bond asserted. Bond and several other members of Congress fear that a winner-take-all deal might force the loser out of the fighter-jet manufacturing business, leaving one company to dominate the market.

"It makes no sense to have one tactical aircraft producer," Bond declared.

Several defense analysts predict that Lockheed is poised to win the contract.

Bond said he would consider adding legislation to the defense authorization bill or the fiscal 2002 Defense appropriations bill.

Carnahan, who urged the split in a letter to Rumsfeld last week, insisted that the Missouri delegation still believes Boeing will win the contact. "It's sort of a backup plan," she said.

Boeing's St. Louis-based manufacturing plant stands to lose 3,000-5,000 jobs if the Defense Department gives the contract to Lockheed.

As a result, some analysts view the Missouri plan as a covert way to protect home-state jobs.

"The assumption is that the senators are reflecting parochial interests, so what they say has to be taken with a grain of salt," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.

Bond maintained that he is acting on his own and not at Boeing's behest.

"This is not Boeing," he said. "I think I caused them some heartburn when I proposed it." However, he said, "They know what I am doing."

A Boeing spokeswoman denied that the company is lobbying for a split. "We think we have a winning proposal," she said.

Another plan floated by Boeing's congressional allies calls for the Pentagon to purchase dozens of Boeing's refueling planes to help with bombing raids on Afghanistan.

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