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Wednesday, July 9, 2008 - Page updated at 09:55 AM

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Decision imminent on future of tanker contract

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he will soon announce the way forward on a $40 billion contract awarded for new Air Force refueling tankers, and congressional sources indicated a decision is expected to be disclosed today.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates exits a Stryker combat vehicle Tuesday at Fort Lewis as Col. Harry Tunnell, commander of the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, stands by.

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TED S. WARREN / AP

Defense Secretary Robert Gates exits a Stryker combat vehicle Tuesday at Fort Lewis as Col. Harry Tunnell, commander of the Army's 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, stands by.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits Fort Lewis.

 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits Fort Lewis.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he will soon announce the way forward on a $40 billion contract awarded for new Air Force refueling tankers, and congressional sources indicated a decision is expected to be disclosed today.

The contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence & Space over Boeing, but a Government Accountability Office report later found the Air Force had made mistakes as it evaluated the competing bids.

That report added momentum to efforts by the Northwest congressional delegation to get the contract rebid.

Gates on Tuesday made his first visit as defense secretary to Fort Lewis, where he checked out eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles and met with soldiers and their spouses.

In a brief session with reporters, he was asked about the tanker contract. Gates said he took the GAO report "very seriously, particularly their identification of the deficiencies in the contract process."

When asked whether he still wants the Air Force to be in charge of the contract, Gates said that announcement will be made very soon but declined to give a date.

Two congressional staffers, speaking on condition of anonymity because the decision is pending, said Air Force officials began informing lawmakers Tuesday afternoon that the decision is expected today.

Last month, the GAO report said Boeing might have won the contract if the Air Force had not made mistakes in evaluating the competing bids. It recommended a new competition.

The tanker deal — one of the largest in Pentagon history — is the first of three Air Force contracts worth up to $100 billion to replace an aging fleet of nearly 600 refueling tankers during the next 30 years.

Lawmakers from Washington and Kansas, where Boeing employs thousands of workers, have pressured the Air Force to reopen the bidding process and cancel the contract with Northrop Grumman-EADS.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a high-profile critic of the decision, introduced a Senate resolution Tuesday calling on the Pentagon to rebid the flawed tanker contract.

"The GAO's decision was clear, and today we are reiterating that message so that the Pentagon knows there is no wiggle room," Murray said. "It's time to go back and hold a truly transparent competition that does our war fighters and taxpayers justice."

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The resolution was co-sponsored by Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; Kit Bond, R-Mo.; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

It's still unclear what Gates will choose to do. Options could range from a quick fix to starting the whole process over, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank.

But as a practical matter, Thompson said, any attempt that appears to ignore the GAO report would meet resistance in Congress, where lawmakers could move to block the contract award.

Top acquisition officials from the Pentagon are to testify on the award Thursday before the House Armed Services Air and Land Forces subcommittee.

This story is based on information from Associated Press reporter Sam Hananel, with contributions from AP reporters Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Daly. Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton also contributed to the report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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