WASHINGTON, Sept 3 (Reuters) - A U.S. Air Force general urged a quick decision on a new aerial tanker, saying every year's delay in picking a new refueling aircraft risked keeping the old KC-135s flying for 80 years.
Gen. Arthur Lichte, the four-star general who runs Air Mobility Command, told reporters on Wednesday that both aircraft, offered by Boeing Co (BA.N) and Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), were outstanding and could do the job.
Each plane, he said, would add unique dimensions to how the Air Force used its tankers in the future.
Northrop and its European partner EADS EAD.PA beat out Boeing to win the $35 billion program in February, but the Pentagon relaunched the competition after the Government Accountability Office upheld Boeing's protest, saying the Air Force made significant errors in the first round.
"I don't care which tanker wins. I just need a new tanker," Lichte said, adding that he feared a "nightmare scenario" that could ground the entire fleet of KC-135 aircraft, which are already 47 years old on average.
That was risky since refueling tankers were what gave the U.S. military its ability to reach around the globe, "the linchpin of every operation that we do," Lichte said.
"For every year or two that we delay up front that means that we fly these things past 2040 and that means the 135 is over 80 years old," he said, adding, "It's unconscionable that we're asking people to fly in combat in 50-year-old airframes."
Lichte, a tanker pilot, said the crews maintaining the KC-135s were doing a great job, but it took 10 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight.
He said he was confident the KC-135s would be fine for the next years, but he wanted to know that a new tanker aircraft had been chosen and was starting to be delivered.
Lichte said it was a company's right to protest in the case of contract awards, but he was concerned that another round of protests could follow whatever action the Pentagon took next.
"What I want to do is to bring it to closure and get on with getting the new tanker because that's what I care about," Lichte said, adding that he favored the schedule laid out by top Pentagon officials, who aim to award a new contract by the end of December.
Boeing has said it may withdraw from the competition -- or protest -- if the Pentagon does not give it six months to prepare a new bid in the revamped competition.
Lichte said the tanker competition was clearly very politicized, but said at some point all the interests involved would have to accept that one company won, and another lost.
"Quite frankly at this point, At this point I'm not sure I see a way forward," Lichte said, citing the "poisonous nature of all the comments that are out there."
"I don't know how we make peace with everybody and say, let's go forward," Lichte said.
He said the Air Force's decision to buy larger KC-10 tankers in the 1970s -- a battle that pitted Boeing against McDonnell Douglas back then -- also set off loud debates about capabilities and requirements, and resulted in congressional caps on how many KC-10s the service could buy.
In the end, he said, the current fleet of 59 KC-10 tankers was performing very well and allowing the Air Force to buy "a lot more" could have prevented some of the problems it now faces.
Splitting the current buy between Boeing and Northrop was one solution, but it would definitely result in higher training and logistical costs. Lichte said.
Another alternative, he said, would be to accelerate the Air Force's planned acquisition of a second batch of tankers, which would help speed up the service's efforts to replace the old KC-135s and could offer opportunities to the losing bidder in the current competition for 179 tankers.
But he said budget constraints could make that difficult.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he did not expect the release of a final request for proposals in the revamped competition on Wednesday, but said he remained optimistic that it could still come this week. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)