Panel chairman says rival firms should share tanker pact

House Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said on Wednesday that he will push to split the contract for the Air Force's next fleet of aerial refueling tankers between the two defense contracting giants who have been at war over the lucrative program.

"I think the most sensible thing to do is to have what is come to be termed as a split buy," Abercrombie said after delivering a speech Wednesday. "If we do that sensibly and take into account the strategic interests involved ... I think we can come to a reasoned conclusion on getting both bids accepted, if you will, and moving forward with that."

Last year, the Air Force awarded the $35 billion contract for the refueling tankers to a team led by Northrop Grumman Corp. and the European firm EADS, which proposed using modified Airbus A330 commercial aircraft.

Losing bidder Boeing Co., which offered a modified 767 passenger plane, successfully protested the award. The Pentagon does not expect to award another contract until early 2010.

Abercrombie said a consensus is developing behind the split-buy approach but acknowledged there is opposition to buying two tanker models. House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., has backed the idea. But others, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and dozens of lawmakers, have argued that doing so would be too costly. "I think the idea of a split buy is an absolutely terrible idea and a very bad mistake for the U.S. taxpayer," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee in January.

Opponents of a split buy have argued that fielding two types of tankers would cost more because each would have its own training and maintenance requirements. They have said it would eliminate competition and ultimately drive up development and procurement costs of the program.

Abercrombie suggested Wednesday that the tanker capability is needed now. "How do we justify the costs of saying we need to have a tanker seven or nine years ago and the explosion of costs since then just by not doing it?" he said. "I justify everything on the basis of meeting the strategic interest of the nation. ... If you have a mission and you agree that that's what the mission is, then you pay for it."

Abercrombie criticized the Obama administration for regarding as one option for budget cuts a delay of the tanker replacement program, which the Air Force has repeatedly called its top procurement priority. "If you could do that [delay the program] in the first place, why did we go through all this?" Abercrombie said. "Why did we go through this for seven or eight or nine years ... and say we've got to have it?"

A postponement of the contract award is among several options on the table as the administration weighs the details of the fiscal 2010 budget, but several sources tracking the issue said such a move was not likely.

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