EADS weighing tanker protest

EADS North America, the losing bidder in the $35 billion competition to build aerial-refueling tankers for the military, said it is evaluating the information received during an Air Force briefing Monday before deciding on its next move.

In a statement, the company was mum on whether it would protest the Air Force's decision last week to award the contract for 179 wide-body jets to its rival, Boeing.

"The EADS North America team has met with the Air Force, received a debriefing, and is evaluating the information presented to us," Guy Hicks, the firm's North America spokesman, said. "Our objective has always been that the U.S. war fighter receive the most capable tanker, following a fair and transparent competition. That remains our position today."

In a follow-up e-mail, Hicks said that the company has not set a timetable to decide whether to protest the decision, a formal process that involves a lengthy review by the Government Accountability Office. "We'll know when that evaluation [of the Air Force briefing] is complete," he added.

The Air Force's tanker program was considered crucial to the European firm's efforts to gain a strong foothold in the U.S. defense market. But a protest would inevitably drag on the nearly decade-long battle for the contract to replace the Eisenhower-era tankers that the Air Force currently flies.

The service awarded the lucrative contract to EADS and its then-partner, Northrop Grumman, in early 2008, but Boeing protested the decision. GAO officials ultimately upheld Boeing's protest, and Pentagon leaders opted to reopen the competition.

But the fight to build the tanker goes back much further. In the rush to acquire new planes in 2003, the Air Force tried to lease Boeing KC-767s tankers before reviewing other options. The $23.5 billion deal collapsed under pressure from congressional critics, led by Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., who exposed Air Force corruption that landed two senior Boeing officials--one of them a former Air Force acquisition chief--in prison.

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