US Air Force chief extends tanker suspense

WASHINGTON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - The Air Force’s top uniformed officer said on Thursday he himself did not yet know whether Boeing or Northrop Grumman would be awarded a potential $40 billion deal to start building a new U.S. aerial refueling fleet.

Gen. Michael Moseley’s remarks extended the suspense about the winner-take-all contract announcement for 179 aircraft, now expected to be made on Friday after U.S. financial markets close, but subject to possible delay.

“As you know by policy and law, I’m not in the acquisition business, and I have no idea which airplane I’m going to get,” Moseley, the chief of staff, told reporters at a breakfast.

Northrop Grumman Corp NOC.N has offered a tanker based on the Airbus A330, built by Europe's EADS EAD.PA, its partner in the competition. Boeing Co BA.N has proposed a modified 767 airliner.

Moseley also said he did not know when John Young, the Pentagon’s top procurement official, would sign off on the Air Force’s purchase plan, presented to a top-level Defense Department acquisition panel on Monday.

Sue Payton, the Air Force’s top procurement official, told Reuters on Wednesday her “best bet” was the announcement would take place on Friday, after markets close.

But Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, left the door open on Thursday to a possible delay.

Asked by a reporter if the announcement could slip into next week, he said: “Oh, absolutely, absolutely.”

Moseley, in his remarks to reporters, voiced hope the contest loser -- which ever team it turns out to be -- would refrain from challenging the Air Force’s ultimate choice.

A growing number of multi-billion-dollar contracts have been challenged recently in protests lodged with the Government Accountability Office. The nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency has 100 days to weigh a protest and to make recommendations, up to reopening a contract competition.

“I would ask them to think about the country and about the people that are flying those airplanes,” he said, referring to Eisenhower-era KC-135 tankers that are due to be replaced. (Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)