WASHINGTON — Air Force officials scrambled to assess their options over a stalled tanker contract Thursday as the four-star general who oversees the tanker fleet warned that the delay could impair efforts to replace decades-old aerial refuelers.
"Without a new tanker, this capability — and our nation's ability to project power and humanitarian assistance in the future — is in significant jeopardy," said Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, the commander of the Air Mobility Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force base near Belleville, Ill.
The Government Accountability Office, ending a weeks-long inquiry, concluded Wednesday that the Air Force had made "significant errors"' in awarding a $35 billion contract for refueling tankers to Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., the parent company of Boeing's chief rival, Airbus.
The findings marked a victory for competing bidder Boeing, which lodged the protest that triggered the investigation.
Air Force acquisition chief Sue Payton huddled with other officials Thursday to determine how the service will respond to the nonbinding recommendation. The Air Force has 60 days to decide; the emerging consensus among lawmakers and military experts was that the contract will be reopened for bidding, beginning a process that could take more than a year.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said he'd talked with a number of Air Force and Defense Department officials, urging them not only to reopen the competition but also to redo the criteria to include such things as jobs, the defense industrial base, fuel consumption and illegal government subsidies.
"There are a number of things that need to be looked at," he said.
The Boeing tanker would be built in Everett, Wash.
Dicks reiterated that he believed that Boeing had won the competition and the Air Force should simply award it the contract. Dicks said Pentagon officials had given him no indication of what they planned to do next.
"If it is their No. 1 priority, as they say it is, they should just pick Boeing," he said. "I'm not sure they have the courage to do that."
Lichte and other military officials, while not taking sides in the contract dispute, expressed disappointment over the delay because it further postpones the Air Force's top priority of replacing a tanker fleet with an average age of 47 years. Older KC-135s date to the Eisenhower era.
"While I respect the process for appealing the Air Force's decision, I am very disappointed to hear the tanker acquisition process may be further delayed," Lichte said in a statement. "We must move forward as soon as possible — recapitalizing the tanker fleet is simply a matter of national security."
The fleet is assigned to the 18th Air Force, which is attached to the Air Mobility Command and also is headquartered at Scott. Maj. Gen. James A. Hawkins, the commander of the 18th Air Force, told McClatchy in late April that some of the tankers are so worn that you can "literally poke your fist" through their corroded skin.
The fleet, spread across 30 sites throughout the country, comprises 452 KC-135s and 59 newer model KC-10s, below the Air Mobility Command's "required range" of 520 to 640 aircraft.
"Again, the nation's mobility force structure finds itself at the bottom of the acceptable ... risk range," said a white paper on the command's Web site.
Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell, in a briefing the day before the GAO released its report, said any further delay "would be a real problem."
"These planes desperately need to be replaced, not yesterday, not the year before, but 10 years ago," he said.
Lt. Gen. Dennis M. McCarthy, the executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, also express concern about delaying the new tankers. More than 50 percent of the tanker fleet is assigned to the Air Force Reserve.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson, an executive with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said a new tanker competition could take at least a year, with bidders submitting new proposals that would require another review by the Air Force acquisition team.
"The Air Force tanker fleet is the oldest fleet of jets in the world," he said. "The danger to the nation here is that corrosion or other age-related problems will ground the fleet."
After months of waiting for the GAO to issue its recommendations, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were waiting to see how the Air Force will respond.
"The process was clearly flawed," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on the Senate floor. "We need to know why. We shouldn't buy more expensive planes built by France. By re-evaluating this deal with proper criteria, I am confident the Air Force will finally agree with me, they'll award the contract to Boeing in short order and our airmen and women will have the best possible plane to carry out their missions."
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, where the Northrop Grumman-EADS tanker would be assembled, countered that the Air Force needed time to review the GAO report and warned that Congress should be patient.
"We shouldn't substitute our judgment for that of our military," Sessions said. "In the end it is critical that all bidders be treated fairly, that politics not be involved and that we get the best airplane for our country."