Top Air Force officials expected to resign later this year

Air Force Secretary James Roche and his chief acquisition officer, Marvin Sambur, are expected to resign before the end of the year, according to government and defense industry sources.

Roche and Sambur have been under a cloud because of their association with the Air Force's effort to acquire Boeing KC-767 tanker aircraft. Air Force officials said no formal notification has been made. Both officials have said in the past they intended to serve through the Bush administration's first term. Beyond that, "they serve at the pleasure of the president," an Air Force spokesman said Wednesday.

Pentagon and industry sources said Roche and Sambur are frustrated by the Senate's opposition to the service's $23.5 billion proposal to procure new aerial refueling tankers, a plan that has been criticized harshly by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"They're fed up," said one industry executive. Pentagon officials are expected to decide soon on whether to reopen competition for tankers to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of KC-135 airplanes. The decision is pending the outcome of a Rand Corp. study of tanker alternatives, slated for completion this week. But the Boeing bid continues to be the subject of a range of inquiries from the Justice Department, the Pentagon inspector general, GAO and others. These investigations have grown out of the original congressional inquiry McCain spearheaded last year into the Air Force plan to lease 100 modified Boeing 767s.

In recent weeks, the Air Force has come under scrutiny for its handling of the tanker deal and other large contracts during the tenure of former Air Force acquisition official Darleen Druyun, who admitted in federal court last April that she gave preferential treatment to Boeing before accepting a senior executive position with the company. This week, the Pentagon widened its investigation into Druyun's actions to include a broad review of acquisition methods across all the military services. And in September the White House initiated a federal probe of Roche, a former Northrop Grumman executive, for allegedly offering to help a senior OMB official land a job for her brother with Roche's former employer in exchange for backing the tanker proposal. Sambur, who was Druyun's boss, also is the subject of a federal probe in which investigators are said to be reviewing 113 of Sambur's e-mails related to the tanker deal. Sambur, former president of ITT Defense, oversees the Air Force's $37 billion annual procurement budget.

Early signs of Roche's frustration on the job came in March when he withdrew his nomination to become Army secretary. Although the White House tapped Roche for the Army post in May 2003, the nomination was bogged down in the Senate Armed Services Committee, where McCain is the second ranking Republican. Sources have speculated that Roche withdrew his nomination in the face of McCain's criticism of the tanker deal and a Pentagon probe into his handling of a sexual assault scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Insiders say Barbara Barrett, a former FAA official in the Reagan administration, is the most likely candidate to fill Roche's slot. The White House nominated Barrett in 2003 to fill the vacancy Roche would have left if he had been appointed to the Army leadership job.

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