Washington: The US Air Force tanker bidding contest against Boeing heated up Friday, with Airbus parent EADS mulling a proposal and Russia’s state firm UAC gearing up for one next week.
EADS opened the door to a bid against US arch-rival Boeing for the 35-billion-dollar aerial refueling tanker contract on signs of Pentagon willingness to extend the May deadline.
The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company’s expressed interest in the competition, and the surprise emergence of a Russian competitor late Friday, marked new twists in the long-running saga to replace the aging Boeing fleet.
Just last week EADS, the parent of Airbus, was forced to withdraw from the bidding after its lead partner, US defense contractor Northrop Grumman, refused to compete, alleging the requirements were skewed in favor of Boeing.
Northrop’s exit from the competition left the field open to the Chicago-based Boeing, the aerospace giant that built the tanker fleet in the 1950s and has promised a formal bid by May 10.
Military commanders view the planned KC-X aircraft as crucial to sustaining US air power and are anxious to replace the older Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers.
The turning point for EADS appeared late Thursday, when the Defense Department acknowledged it would consider “a reasonable extension” to the bidding deadline after learning from EADS it may reenter the fray.
“Yesterday the US Department of Defense (DoD) indicated it would welcome a proposal from EADS North America as prime contractor for the KC-X tanker competition,” EADS said in a statement Friday.
“This is a significant development. EADS is assessing this new situation to determine if the company can feasibly submit a responsive proposal to the department’s request for proposal,” the company said.
Northrop declined to comment on the EADS statement.
EADS said it appreciated the Pentagon’s signal of willingness to extend the time frame, but “in the end, the company will only submit a proposal if there is a fair chance to win, after evaluating all relevant factors.”
EADS said “an important prerequisite” for its consideration of entry into the competition to provide 179 tankers would be “a significant extension to the period within which to prepare and submit a proposal.”
The Defense Department, meanwhile, said that EADS was seeking a 90-day extension of the deadline.
“We would consider reasonable extensions,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, adding that the “next step is for them to give us some specifics in terms of what they need the additional time for.”
The Pentagon spokesman confirmed that EADS could bid to be the sole contractor without a US partner “as long as they meet the requirements.”
The field appeared to widen suddenly to at least a two-way race after a lawyer representing Russian state-owned aerospace group United Aircraft Corporation said the company would enter a bid with a US partner.
“They’re going to announce Monday a joint venture with an American company to bid on the tanker program,” attorney John Kirkland told AFP.
Kirkland did not identify the US firm but said it was publicly traded.
The DoD could not immediately confirm the upcoming Russian bid.
“We’ve always been clear that this is a fair and open competition and we welcome all qualified bidders,” Geoff Morell, a Pentagon spokesman, told AFP.
According to a source familiar with the situation, UAC will propose a tanker version of its Ilyushin IL-96, to be built in Russia and assembled in the US southeastern region.
“Bizarre!” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group.
“They have no chance at all. In addition to the obvious security concerns, there are strong doubts about their ability to create a jetliner that’s up to Airbus or Boeing standards. Even if they did, the political obstacles would be insurmountable,” he said in an email.
The Northrop-EADS withdrawal from the race has triggered an uproar in Europe, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week accusing Washington of bias in favor of the all-American Boeing plane.
The team had won the contract in February 2008, but the deal was canceled after a successful Boeing appeal to the investigative arm of Congress.
In 2003, the Pentagon awarded a contract to Boeing but later suspended it after an ethics scandal involving a company executive and an Air Force official. The Air Force official was later convicted of criminal conspiracy.