Pentagon meeting on aerial tanker slips to Feb. 22

WASHINGTON Mon Feb 4, 2008 11:09am EST

WASHINGTON Feb 4 (Reuters) - Pentagon officials will review a $40 billion Air Force program to buy 179 jet-refueling planes on Feb. 22, more than a week later than expected, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Defense Department said on Monday.

The meeting of the Defense Acquisition Board, headed by chief Pentagon weapons buyer John Young, had already slipped to Feb. 13 from late January.

The latest delay means the Air Force may not be able to announce a winner by the end of February in the bitter competition between Boeing Co (BA.N) and a Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N)-EADS EAD.PA team.

Top Air Force officials are still hoping to meet that target, but Lt. Gen. Donald Hoffman, the top uniformed officer involved in Air Force acquisition, warned as early as December that there was a reasonable chance of delay to March or later.

"We'll take whatever amount of time it takes to get to the right answer," Hoffman said at the time.

The Air Force, stung by several successful protests involving other big contracts, is working hard to ensure the tanker competition does not result in a whole new set of protests.

On Friday, the Government Accountability Office handed it another setback when it rejected the service's request to reconsider a ruling that faulted the service's handling of a $1.2 billion contract with Boeing for depot maintenance of the aging fleet of KC-135 refueling aircraft.

The tanker deal is being closely watched by lawmakers and other watchdog groups after an earlier $23.5 billion Air Force plan to buy 100 Boeing 767s fell apart amid a procurement scandal that sent two former Boeing executives to prison.

"The Air Force wants this to be the cleanest competition possible," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute who has close ties to the Air Force.

"Although it's eager to make a decision, the Air Force is willing to wait a long time to announce a winner if there are any ambiguities that need to be resolved," he said.

Before the contract can be awarded, the Air Force's "source selection authority," in this case Air Force chief weapons buyer Sue Payton, must finalize a decision picking the winning plane, and the Pentagon board must approve the overall acquisition strategy, which includes funding, schedule and technical requirements. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by John Wallace)