Air Force chief open to extending tanker deadline

Gen. Norton Schwartz says a "modest extension" could be granted if the European consortium EADS is serious about submitting a bid.

The Air Force's top officer Tuesday signaled his willingness to back an extension of the deadline for submitting bids for a new airborne refueling aircraft to allow time for a possible competitor to Boeing for the multibillion-dollar program.

But Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, said no decision has been made. Officials will have to determine whether the European consortium EADS is "really serious about putting forward a proposal," he said.

Speaking at an Air Force Association breakfast session in Crystal City, Va., Schwartz was asked about the reported request from EADS to extend the deadline on the KC-X contract for 90 days so it can consider whether to submit an independent bid.

The European aircraft maker had been a partner with Northrop Grumman Corp. on the huge project, offering a modified Airbus A330. But Northrop dropped out of the competition, arguing that the request for proposals favored Boeing's smaller 767-based tanker.

If EADS is serious about competing for KC-X, Schwartz said, a "modest extension" of the May 10 deadline would be in the taxpayers' interest.

Earlier in his remarks, Schwartz said he still believes the terms of the RFP were fair and represented the Air Force's essential requirements for a new tanker.

At the Pentagon Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said a deadline extension was possible, but not inevitable.

"I would not characterize anything as a done deal," Morrell said.

The KC-X program has drawn competing camps in Congress, with the Washington state and Kansas delegations arguing for an award to Boeing, which would build the tankers in their states, and Alabama members supporting Northrop and EADS, which had promised to assemble their tanker in that state.

On another issue likely to draw opposition from Congress, Schwartz said a new air mobility requirement study recently sent to Capitol Hill shows that the current airlift force structure is "more than adequate" to meet the projected airlift requirements.

In the larger aircraft category, which means the C-5s and C-17s, he said the study shows a need for aircraft in "the low 300," and the Air Force has more than that number in service or on order. As a result, he said, they are asking Congress for authority to retire 17 of the oldest C-5s.

That finding also would mean continued opposition to congressional efforts to buy more C-17s, which have succeeded over the last three years despite Air Force objections. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he would urge President Obama to veto any legislation calling for more of the Boeing-built aircraft.