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Stratotanker bidding war to drag into next year

TAMPA — MacDill Air Force pilots will be flying aging fuel tankers indefinitely, after the bidding war to build a replacement fleet was passed to the next presidential administration.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Wednesday that the lengthy and botched bidding for the $35-billion contract won't be finished by year's end.

MacDill Air Force Base is among the first in line to receive replacement Stratotankers, the backbone of the modern Air Force that refuel planes in the air for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Local members of Congress said they were disappointed to hear of yet another delay.

U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, the top Republican on the House committee that controls military spending, said he had hoped that the contract would be settled this year.

"I'm afraid the need for the tankers is getting critical," Young said. "We need to get the airplanes built and in the fleet."

He said he has been assured that MacDill will be one of the first bases to get the new planes. The number eventually bound for MacDill ranges from 33 to 36.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, a member of the Armed Services Committee, pointed out that the planes have been flying since the Eisenhower administration.

"It's an unfortunate abdication of responsibility by the Bush administration," Castor said.

MacDill has 16 of the KC-135 Stratotankers, which average 50 years old.

If the base receives more than 30, it could create a significant upswing in activity and require an expansion of infrastructure such as hangars.

The Stratotankers are crucial to the viability of MacDill's airfield and the health of the Tampa Bay area, said Fred Raymond, chair of the Military Affairs Council for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

But Raymond didn't think postponing the bids would matter much to the bay area, which he said will be unaffected by who wins the contract. The base will manage with the planes it has until new ones arrive, he said.

"It's not a crisis," Raymond said. "I don't think anybody's going to jump out the window over it. At some point they need to replace those airplanes. They've been flying a long time."

Wednesday's decision was yet another hangup in a long, winding process to modernize the fleet. Boeing won the first version of the contest, only to be stripped of its prize in 2004 amid an ethics scandal. Then Boeing's competitor, Northrop Grumman, and its partner, European Aeronautic Defense & Space, got the contract only to have it thrown out in July after a congressional report showed flaws in the process.

Last month, Boeing threatened to drop out of the bidding because it said it didn't have enough time to meet the changing specifications for the new jets.

"It could be years before we start bending metal on the next tanker," said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute. "The effort to replace ancient Cold War tankers began at the beginning of the decade and promises to extend many decades into the future."

As the Stratotankers continue to age, the clock is ticking on the Bush administration. Gates acknowledged mistakes when he spoke before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

"Over the past seven years the process has become enormously complex and emotional — in no small part because of mistakes and missteps along the way by the Department of Defense," Gates said. "It is my judgment that in the time remaining to us, we can no longer complete a competition that would be viewed as fair and objective in this highly charged environment."

Information from the Associated Press and the Washington Post was used in this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Stratotanker bidding war to drag into next year 09/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 11, 2008 2:40pm]
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