Northrop, Air Force seek dismissal of Boeing’s tanker contract protest

WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman Corp. and the Air Force filed separate motions on Wednesday to dismiss significant portions of Boeing Co.’s protest of a $35 billion Air Force contract awarded to Northrop and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. last month.

Northrop said Wednesday that it has asked the Government Accountability Office to dismiss key pieces of what it called Boeing’s “PR-plated” protest, which was filed on March 11.

That announcement was soon followed by an Air Force statement that it, too, has filed with the GAO for “partial summary dismissal” of the protest filed by Boeing.

The GAO has 100 days from the date of Boeing’s filing to issue a decision on whether an Air Force contract for 179 aerial refueling tankers stands.

While the Air Force offered no other details, Northrop said in a statement that it wants to “clear the air and afford the GAO the opportunity to do its job without distraction.”

Northrop argues in its filing that many of Boeing’s claims to the GAO come too late. Northrop says Boeing should have raised these concerns with the Air Force before submitting its final tanker proposal.

Boeing maintains that pressure from Capitol Hill and the Northrop Grumman-EADS team ultimately led the Air Force to pick the larger plane even though it had originally asked for a medium-sized tanker. The Boeing protest also argues that the Air Force lost sight of the original mission for the tanker fleet — letting planes refuel without landing — by choosing a larger tanker that could carry more passengers and cargo.

Air Force officials said they choose the EADS-Northrop tanker, which is based on the Airbus A-330, in large part because it to can carry more fuel, cargo and passengers.

In addition, Boeing charges that the Air Force changed its requirements to accommodate the bigger tanker.

To bolster its protest, Boeing has launched a publicity campaign in recent weeks to overturn the contract. That PR push has picked up momentum on Capitol Hill, fueled by lawmakers from Washington, Kansas and other states that would have gained jobs if Boeing had won.

The tanker deal is the first of three Air Force contracts worth as much as $100 billion to replace its fleet of nearly 600 refueling tankers the next 30 years. As the winners of the first contract, Northrop Grumman and EADS, parent of Boeing rival Airbus, will be in a strong position to win subsequent deals.

In a statement released Wednesday, Boeing said it opposes “any effort to stop an unbiased review” of the tanker competition.

“Any effort to prevent the GAO from finding answers to why unstated changes were made to the bid requirements and evaluation criteria should be questioned,” the company said. “The American taxpayer and warfighter deserves answers that can only happen if the process is allowed to continue.”

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