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Wed, Jan 14, 2009

USAF Tanker Bid Remains In Limbo

KC-X? What KC-X?

One of the stories we expected to be covering this year was the next round of bidding for the US Air Force's next-generation aerial refueling tanker, dubbed the KC-X.

If you recall last year's drama, Northrop Grumman won the contract to build new tankers based on the Airbus A330 airliner. Excited economic development officials in Alabama were beaming at the thought of all the jobs promised by Airbus parent EADS, which also pledged to produce other A330 variants there if the military tanker was approved.

But Boeing challenged the process as having been biased toward Northrop's bid, the Government Accountability Office of Congress agreed, and the Air Force finally agreed the project should be rebid.

Now, the Orlando Sentinel reports industry observers are predicting that given other priorities for the incoming Obama administration, any new KC-X bidding process may be put off till 2010 at the soonest, and that the Air Force might decide not to build the plane at all.

John Pike, president of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense-research firm, commented, "Frankly, I hope the tanker deal is one thing that does not survive the transition. Basically, there's really nothing wrong with the existing KC-135 tankers, and any case for replacing them is completely made up."

Opponents to that line of thinking counter the KC-135s are approaching 60 years of age... and while they benefit from excellent maintenance and regular upgrades, that's simply too old for aircraft that perform such a vital role.

Regarding the recent trend toward official protests of every new Air Force contract, regardless of who wins, Lexington Institute defense analyst Loren Thompson offers the one assessment on which everyone agrees.

"I don't know if we'll ever build the next-generation tanker," he quipped. "But we're sure building some good law firms in the process."

FMI: www.af.mil

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