WASHINGTON The Air Force met last week with the
chief executives of Boeing Co (BA.N) and Northrop Grumman Corp
(NOC.N) to voice concern about the "vitriolic" tone of public
statements over a $35 billion refueling aircraft program, two
sources briefed about the meeting said on Monday.
The Air Force surprised the industry by awarding the
contract for new aerial tankers to Northrop and its European
subcontractor, EADS EAD.PA. The decision has sparked howls of
protest from Boeing and its supporters in Congress.
Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney and Northrop Chief
Executive Ron Sugar met on Friday with Gen. Duncan McNabb, the
Air Force vice chief of staff since September, said the
sources, who asked not to be named.
"There is a lot of unhappiness about how vitriolic the
debate has become," said one of the sources. He characterized
the meeting as "polite."
Prior to McNabb's current job, he headed Air Mobility
Command, the part of the Air Force that provides airlift and
aerial refueling for all of the U.S. armed forces.
Boeing has protested the February 29 contract award with
the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, accusing the
Air Force of steering the contract to Northrop. Boeing's
backers in Congress have vowed to halt funding for the deal if
the appeal fails.
Boeing has also run a series of full-page advertisements in
U.S. newspapers condemning the Air Force's handling of the deal
as "flawed by countless irregularities."
"It's really gotten ugly," said one Air Force official who
spoke on condition he not be identified.
The GAO, which oversees federal contract disputes, has said
it expects to rule on the case by June 19.
The Air Force insists the Northrop plane, based on the A330
airliner built by EADS's Airbus unit, is the best one to
replace aging KC-135 tankers used to extend the range of
warplanes by in-flight refueling.
The Air Force declined comment on the Friday meeting.
Officials at Boeing and Northrop said it was their
corporate policy not to comment about the schedules of their
Defense analyst Loren Thompson, of the Virginia-based
Lexington Institute, said the meeting was clearly prompted by
Air Force concerns about the tanker debate.
"The tone of the tanker debate has turned so negative that
Air Force leaders are concerned that it could damage their
long-term relationship with Boeing," he said.
McNabb is the most senior Air Force official with an
intimate understanding of how the new airplanes will be used to
refuel U.S. military aircraft, Thompson said. "He represents
the warfighter who's ultimately going to be using these
An earlier $23.5 billion Air Force deal with Boeing to
replace over 500 KC-135 tankers fell apart in 2004 amid a
procurement scandal that sent the former No. 2 Air Force
acquisition official to prison. The official, Darleen Druyun,
admitted to accepting a higher price as a parting gift before
leaving the service to take a senior job with Boeing.
Given the delays caused by the scandal, and a shortage of
funds that allows the service to buy only 15 new airplanes a
year, the Air Force now estimates that some of its current
aerial tankers will be approaching 90 years in age when they
are finally replaced.
The refueling tankers are the Air Force's No. 1 acquisition
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)