Air Force tanker bids due next week

With a decision nearing, rival bidders Boeing and EADS North America have until the end of next week to get final offers in for the lucrative contract to replace the Eisenhower-era refueling tankers the Air Force now flies.

Revisions are due by 8 a.m. on February 11 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. That gives the firms fewer than two weeks to make any changes to their bids, which were first submitted to the Air Force in July and number in the thousands of pages.

The much-anticipated contract award, which is estimated at as much as $40 billion, could then come within weeks-perhaps as soon as late February or, probably more likely considering the scrutiny the award will receive, early March. The Air Force often announces such awards on a Friday, after the markets close for the week and lawmakers are out of town.

With that time frame, the announcement would come almost three years to the day that the Air Force selected EADS for the contract to build 179 refueling tankers. But subsequently, the Government Accountability Office upheld a protest filed by Boeing and the Pentagon ultimately decided to cancel the contract and reopen the competition for the tankers, which has become a decade-long saga and one of the most hotly contested awards in Pentagon procurement history.

Spokesmen for both companies declined on Wednesday to discuss the details of their revisions, other than to confirm the deadline set by the Air Force and say they are working on any necessary changes.

"As the competition comes down to the wire, our tanker team is focused on one thing: providing the Air Force with the most capable tanker at the lowest cost to the taxpayer," Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale said on the company's tanker blog.

Considering the upcoming deadline, it does not appear that Air Force officials plan to wait until the Pentagon inspector general decides whether to follow through with a request from Boeing supporters on Capitol Hill to investigate an earlier Air Force error.

Last fall, the Air Force mistakenly sent to both Boeing and EADS the other company's Integrated Fleet Aerial Refueling Assessment (IFARA), in addition to the information the firms were supposed to receive.

Both companies returned the information to the Air Force. But in an attempt to level the playing field, the Air Force released to both firms a screen shot of the other's IFARA, one of several criteria used to evaluate a bid.

But Boeing boosters in Congress-including the Washington state and Kansas delegations-are worried that EADS now has an unfair leg up on the competition and last week requested the IG investigation.

Boeing would build its tanker, based on a 767 airframe, at its plant in Everett, Wash., with military modifications completed in Wichita, Kan. EADS plans to build its tanker, an Airbus A330, at a new facility in Mobile, Ala.

On Saturday, John Crane, the assistant inspector general for communications and congressional liaison, wrote the senators who had requested the investigation that IG officials are reviewing the request and will provide "our course of action in the matter as soon as possible."

When asked about the request for an IG probe, Barksdale told National Journal Daily, "We're very focused on finishing it [the revisions] up and getting it in on time."

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