Tanker contract re-do will be closely watched

The Air Force procurement office is once again being accused of soaring off into the wild blue yonder.

It's not a compliment this time.

It's that $35 billion to $100 billion tanker competition.

The one that won't go away and can't seem to get resolved.

The one that has lawyers for both competitors, European Airbus and the United States' Boeing, trotting through various revolving courthouse doors like airline passengers late for a flight.

With such a huge contract at stake, everybody in Congress and the European Union seems eager to get involved.

They'd better.

The last go-around, the Air Force award of the contract to Airbus instead of Boeing caused so much national heartburn that the secretary of the Air Force and the four-star chief of staff both lost their jobs. That was under George W. Bush's administration. There were other contributing factors to the ousters, but the contract snafu was a big part of it.

Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the Air Force would put off rebidding and awarding the contract until the new administration came in.

The new administration is here, and Gates is too, in the same job.

You can bet the procurement office realizes the pressure it is under.

If not, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Rep. Norm Dicks, and other members of our state's congressional delegation are sure to remind them. In fact, they're already doing it.

This time the procurement office says it will not factor in a preliminary finding by the World Trade Organization that Airbus received $5 billion in help from European treasuries to help keep its prices down.

Unfair, say Boeing backers.

Of course, Boeing got into trouble in an earlier round over an aerial tanker contract. During then-president of Boeing Phil Condit's negotiations with the government, Boeing's chief financial officer, Michael M. Sears, violated procurement rules by allegedly offering an Air Force procurement officer a job. The scandal led to Condit's resignation.

Questioning each others' ethical standards could come out a wash for the two industry giants.

But Congress is on alert.

As Herald Washington, D.C., reporter Les Blumenthal wrote last week:

"This time, the Pentagon is aware of the WTO litigation and is monitoring the case," said Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Platt. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said last week, however, that, "At this time we see no need to make adjustments" in the draft request for bids.

To Boeing backers, that's unacceptable.

"The Department of Defense is well aware of how I feel," said Murray, who first raised the Airbus subsidy issue in 1994. "Everyone knows the seriousness of the impact of this. Pentagon leadership has said they plan to conduct a fair and open competition, but a truly fair and open competition needs to start with competitors who play by the rules."

Noting that Airbus received $5 billion in development subsidies, Rep. Dicks said it was "no wonder they can bid lower. The Department of Defense is looking the other way. We hope Boeing wins, but there will be ramifications if it doesn't."

If Boeing wins, there will be thousands of jobs in Washington.

Airbus has promised to build parts of its plane in the United States too.

But in the end, we cannot forget an argument Sen. Murray advanced that has never, to our knowledge, been refuted.

It is at the heart of this matter.

In drawing up the specifications for the new tankers, the Air Force at first put out requirements that it turned out only the Boeing plane could meet.

It then rewrote the specifications specifically so Airbus could compete.

But it would have to compete with an airplane so large, taking so much runway and enlarged hangar space that the Air Force would have to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure changes.

All that at air bases where the Boeing tanker could land right now.

Maybe the Air Force procurement officers should explain what's wrong with Murray's observation before they rush off to spend $35 billion to $100 billion.