WASHINGTON — Boeing scored a major victory Wednesday in its battle to wrestle back a $35-billion Air Force contract from Northrop Grumman and its European partner.
The Government Accountability Office upheld Boeing's protest of the refueling tanker contract and recommended the service hold a new competition. The congressional watchdog said it found "a number of significant errors" in the Air Force's February decision, including its failure to fairly judge the relative merits of each proposal.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said he isn't taking sides on the bid award. But he said the Air Force will be under intense congressional pressure to act quickly.
Young said a staffer of the House Appropriations Committee recently visited MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to inspect some of its 16 KC-135 refueling tankers, which date to the 1960s.
While they are safe to fly, the staffer, also a pilot, said the planes need to be replaced as soon as possible, Young said.
"I have mixed feelings about this," Young said. "This needs to be done right. We need the best tanker at the best price we can get. But on the other side of the page, we needed these tankers last year. They can only patch an old plane for so long."
Young said Air Force officials have told him that MacDill will eventually get at least 30 of the tankers, whichever company builds it. But it could take years for the first to arrive and the GAO report could cause further delays.
Reopening the bidding could pave the way for Boeing to capture part or all of the award from Northrop and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. And it gives ammunition to Boeing supporters in Congress who have been seeking to block funding for the deal or force a new competition.
The Air Force will determine its next steps after a review of the GAO ruling within 60 days.
The decision is a setback for Sen. John McCain, who was instrumental in the Pentagon's attempt to finish a tanker deal.
McCain sent letters in 2006 urging the Defense Department to make sure the bidding proposals guaranteed competition between Boeing and Airbus. Months later, Airbus' parent company retained the firm of a McCain campaign adviser to lobby for the deal.
The tanker contract has sparked a fierce backlash among lawmakers from Washington, Kansas and other states that stand to gain jobs if Boeing succeeds in landing the award.
The contract for 179 aerial refueling tankers is the first of three deals worth up to $100-billion to replace the Air Force's entire tanker fleet over the next 30 years.
Times staff writer William Levesque contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.