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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), rejecting a claim by losing bidder Boeing Co (BA.N), said on Monday its aerial tanker based on the Airbus A330 could refuel the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft flown by the Marine Corps.
Boeing on March 11 filed a protest against the Air Force's decision to award Northrop and its European partner, EADS EAD.PA, the parent of Airbus, a $35 billion program for new aerial refueling tankers that will be known as the KC-45.
In the protest, Boeing said the Northrop tanker had "significant shortcomings" including the inability to refuel aircraft like the V-22 Osprey. The Osprey takes off and lands like a helicopter, but flies like an airplane.
Northrop director of business development Marc Lindsley said that claim was false.
"The Northrop KC-45 can refuel the V-22," he told Reuters.
The ability to refuel the V-22 was not a mandatory requirement in the bidding competition, according to industry sources.
Both the Northrop KC-30 tanker and Boeing's 767 tanker include a center refueling boom, hose and drogue refueling equipment on the wingpods, and a center-line hose and drogue.
A drogue is a system that allows the tanker to pass fuel into the receiving aircraft using a retractable hose. It differs from the boom system, which has a long pipe that hangs under the plane and mates up with the receiving aircraft.
But neither company has flight tested the center line hose and drogue that would be used to refuel the V-22s, which the Marine Corps is now using in Iraq, according to industry sources.
Currently, the Marines refuel V-22s using Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) C-130 planes. The Marine Corps' V-22 program office had no immediate comment on the refueling issue.
Northrop's system, which includes a 90-foot hose, is made by Sargent Fletcher, the U.S. division of Britain's Cobham Plc (COB.L), which makes refueling hoses used aboard the C-130.
In a document explaining her decision to award the program to Northrop and a separate set of briefing charts, Air Force acquisition chief Sue Payton said Boeing's aircraft was better suited for refueling tilt-rotor aircraft. The Boeing 767 could also carry separate types of fuels and was better able to refuel aircraft such as the C-130 at the 767's maximum gross weight, Payton said.
She said Northrop's aircraft had two weaknesses associated with its refueling boom -- limited lighting for night operations and weak boom nozzles -- but Payton said both could be resolved during the development phase.
Boeing's tanker had some advantages, but Payton concluded "they are not significant when compared to the significant refueling advantages that the KC-30 provides," according to a confidential Air Force document, which was viewed by Reuters.
Overall, Air Force evaluators assigned more risk to Boeing's bid because it has not yet built the 767-200 Long Range Freighter model it proposed for the tanker, which includes parts from other 767 models, or its refueling boom.
They concluded Northrop's bid posed a lower risk during the development phase, in part because it would provide for four commercial planes to be modified into tankers earlier.
The Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan congressional agency that oversees contract disputes, is reviewing Boeing's protest. It is likely to call a number of hearings on the issue before it rules on the case by June 19.
In its protest, Boeing also criticized the Air Force's handling of the Integrated Fleet Air Refueling Assessment, a complex tool used to analyze the tankers' performance in specific wartime scenarios.
To perform the assessment, it said the Air Force relied on the Combined Mating and Ranging Planning System model, which was developed by Northrop. It said the Air Force also made changes to the integrated fleet refueling assessment that favored the larger tanker.
Lindsley acknowledged that a Northrop unit did develop the Combined Mating and Ranging Planning System model, but said the Air Force had been using it even before the tanker competition. Northrop's tanker team never communicated with the Northrop team that created the model, he said.
"We never talked with them. I don't even know where their headquarters is," Lindsley said.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, editing by Richard Chang