WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon is still weighing how to proceed with a multibillion-dollar competition for new aerial refueling tankers, and may yet consider a plan to buy new planes from both Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp, a top U.S. lawmaker said on Wednesday.
Representative John Murtha, head of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told reporters he remained convinced that the only way to avoid protests and delays would be to buy the tankers faster, and split the buy between the two rival teams.
He said he expected to insert language requiring accelerated purchases of tankers to the fiscal 2010 defense appropriations bill, but said the latest version of the measure would allow Defense Secretary Robert Gates to decide whether to buy tankers from one company or both.
He said he discussed the issue with both Gates and the new Pentagon acquisition chief, Ashton Carter, and both listened to his views. After those conversations, Murtha said he did not expect the Pentagon to release the terms for the new tanker competition in the near future.
Gates last week said the Pentagon would decide “within a few days” how to structure its third attempt in eight years to begin replacing its aging fleet of KC-135 refueling planes.
He said he was still hoping to issue a request for proposals to industry by midsummer.
The Pentagon last year canceled a $35-billion, 179-plane contract it had awarded to Northrop and its European partner EADS in February 2008, after government auditors upheld a challenge from losing bidder Boeing.
Murtha said he was convinced that any decision to award the next contract to just one company would spark further protests.
He said Carter told him the Pentagon was examining data on a proposed split tanker buy. “He said, ‘We’re looking at it. We’re going to see what can be done,’” Murtha told reporters, adding, “It’s still in its infancy.”
Murtha said he met with Gates on Tuesday, and reiterated his view that buying tankers faster would save “substantial” money in the future by eliminating high maintenance costs and the need for new skins and engines on the existing KC-135 tankers.
Murtha said his goal was to have the Pentagon buy two to three tankers a month, instead of the one it currently plans.
“I think we’ll reach a compromise. I think we’ll either buy two or three a month, that would be my prediction,” he said.
Murtha pulled a handwritten list of three or four items on which Gates was unwilling to negotiate out of his breast pocket, and said the tanker was not on it.
“Secretary Gates really was noncommittal on it. He listened to what I had to say,” Murtha said. “There were three or four points that the secretary made that he wasn’t willing to negotiate on. That wasn’t one of them.”
That would be a big change from April, when Gates told U.S. Air Force officers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama that he was “laying my body down across the tracks” to oppose splitting the tanker contract because it would result in additional logistics, training and maintenance costs.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn