Try, Try Again
A Boeing artist's concept of the Air Force's next-generation tanker, based on its 767 airframe (Boeing illustration via Aviation Week)
With any luck, we’ll know the “latest” winner of the Air Force tanker competition in December, more than five years after the process first began.
The new deadline was announced yesterday by senior Defense Department officials, who outlined procedures for re-opening the contract bidding process. They told a Pentagon press conference that a new request for proposals (RFP) is expected late this month, or in early August. That will allow the competing firms, Boeing and Northrop-Grumman, to re-bid “wholly new proposals,” with the winner being announced by the end of the year.
While movement in the long-delayed tanker program is certainly welcome news, yesterday’s announcement was another black eye for the Air Force. During yesterday’s press conference, the same DoD officials (Defense Secretary Robert Gates; acting Air Force Secretary Mike Donley and Pentagon Acquisition Chief John Young) revealed new plans for handling the tanker bids.
Under the modified acquisition process, Mr. Young’s office will not only make the final selection, it will also lead a newly-formed, source selection advisory committee. Normally, most of those advisory functions (short of final selection) are performed by the military services.
Washington Democratic Congressman Norman Dicks explained the reason for change rather succinctly, observing that “no one trusts the Air Force.” That might be an understatement. After screwing up the process two times previously, the service has been given a backseat in the third round of contract bidding. Think of it as Mr. Gates affirmation that Air Force acquisition is hard broke.
The latest round of bidding became necessary when the Government Accountability Office found flaws in the service’s last tanker choice, announced earlier this year. In a highly-controversial decision, the Air Force selected Northrop-Grumman to build its next generation of air refueling planes, using the Airbus A330 airframe.
Boeing protested the decision, claiming (among other things) that Northrop-Grumman had been given “extra credit” for offering a larger aircraft, criteria not found in the original contract specifications. A GAO review upheld the Boeing protest, determining that the Air Force made a number of “significant errors” in making its decision and setting the stage for a new round of competition.
During yesterday’s press conference, Mr. Young suggested that the new bidding process might be streamlined. Air Force requirements for the tankers haven’t changed. The Pentagon’s source selection advisory panel may have to re-calculate program cost and capability values, but the “data haul” won’t be as intensive as in past rounds of bidding.
Young said he hopes to make a “valid” acquisition decision as soon as possible, while speeding the delivery of new aircraft. The USAF hopes to have the first of its advanced tankers in service by 2013, replacing Eisenhower-era KC-135s.
However, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar hasn’t offered a plan for fixing the Air Force procurement process. Last month’s GAO ruling stunned the USAF , and yesterday’s announcement of a modified acquisition process was, essentially, a no-confidence vote in the service's acquisition corps, now led by Assistant Air Force Secretary Sue Payton.
Repairing the service’s acquisition system is a job that will fall on Mr. Donley and the next Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz. Amid the host of problems now facing the service, the acquisition mess ranks at the top of the list, and for obvious reasons. The Air Force has other big-ticket programs that are also in acquisition limbo, most notably the contract for new combat search-and-rescue helicopters, or CSAR-X.
When the service selected Boeing’s HH-47 as the winner in November 2006, the decision was met with a formal protest from losing bidders Northrop-Grumman and Sikorsky. Sure enough, the GAO upheld that protest, forcing the Air Force to start over again. Almost two years later, the CSAR and special ops communities are still waiting for a new helicopters to replace the aging, under-sized HH-60 Pave Hawks that now make up the Air Force rescue fleet.
Loren Thompson, the respected airpower analyst at the Washington-based Lexington Institute said last month’s GAO ruling “raises the question of whether the Air Force knows what it is doing.” Ensuing events—including Mr. Gates’ decision to strip the service’s acquisition authority in the tanker deal—have done nothing to challenge that assessment. Reversing that perception (and fixing the procurement process) will require all of the miracle-working skills that Mr. Donley and General Schwartz can muster.