General bemoans glut of Air Force contract protests

The commander of the Air Force Material Command said Wednesday that the contract for the huge airborne tanker program will be awarded by the end of this month, but he also expressed confidence that the protest against the decision already has been written. The reason, explained the commander, Gen. Bruce Carlson, is that there are no penalties for a losing bidder to protest, even though the appeals delay vital acquisition programs and cost the military hundreds of millions of dollars.

The protest of the November 2006 decision on the Air Force's new combat search and rescue helicopter, won by the Boeing CH-47, has cost the Air Force $800 million, Carlson said. The CSAR(X) program is to buy 141 new helicopters to replace badly aged and inadequate HH-60s. The losing bidders, Sikorsky and a team of Lockheed Martin-Augusta Westlands, protested the award, arguing that the Air Force misjudged key requirements. The new contract decision is expected this summer, following a delay of almost two years in a vital modernization program.

The general told reporters at a forum sponsored by Aviation Week that there should be some form of penalty instituted for protests that are found to be unwarranted. He said that some losing bidders file protests with 20 or 30 elements when perhaps only one part has any foundation. In recent years, nearly every significant defense contract has been protested by the losers to the Government Accountability Office. Industry analysts have attributed that trend to the fact that there are so few new programs that contractors have a lot more to lose in a failed bid. Because GAO is an arm of the legislative branch, congressional action apparently would be needed to impose any penalties for frivolous or unfounded protests. Carlson said he has been in discussions with defense industry officials and believed they would support "some form of accountability" for unreasonable protests. Although the general did not indicate what form the penalty should take, it would most likely be monetary.

On another separate issue, Carlson repeated the Air Force's position that it needed 381 F-22s, although the Pentagon has agreed to only 183 because of the high cost of the high-tech fighters. Carlson said the Air Force was confident it could pay for the additional F-22s within its own budget and was drafting a plan to show how it would do that.

The fiscal 2009 defense budget proposes to buy 20 F-22s to finish the program. But the budget did not include money to shut down the line, leaving the future of the F-22 to Congress and the next administration. House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., has said he expected Congress to add money for additional F-22s in the next fiscal 2008 war supplemental. Murtha also predicted additional buys for the C-17 transport planes. The fiscal 2009 budget does not request money for additional aircraft or to close the production line.

House Armed Services Air-Land Subcommittee Chairman Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, told the forum that the uncertain future of the F-22 and the C-17 were examples of a lack of strategic planning by the Bush administration. "I don't think that's any way you can conduct business," he told the audience, which consisted mainly of defense industry representatives.

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