WASHINGTON – The Boeing Co.’s top defense executive said Wednesday that the company will support splitting a $35 billion contract with rival Northrop Grumman Corp. for new Air Force refueling jets if the Pentagon chooses that approach.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to try again this summer to award a contract to build 179 tankers, the latest attempt after a series of failed tries. Some lawmakers have proposed buying planes from both Boeing and Northrop to speed up production and defuse the heated rivalry between the two big defense contractors. Gates doesn’t endorse that plan.
Jim Albaugh, head of Boeing’s defense unit, said it appeared the Pentagon will use a winner-take-all competition to build the plane. But the Chicago-based company will support any shift to a split contract, he added.
“We are going to support whatever type of acquisition that our customer wants to put in place,” Albaugh said in a phone interview.
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Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the defense panel of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, has been the most vocal supporter of the dual contractor approach.
Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey said Wednesday that the lawmaker was considering adding language and funds related to the tanker to the Pentagon’s $83.4 billion supplemental war funding request. Still, Mazonkey said it’s too early to determine whether those measures will call for a split buy.
Momentum has been growing for the proposal in recent weeks. European Aeronautics Defense and Space Co., parent of plane maker Airbus and Northrop’s partner, said it would support a dual contract if it could get enough plane orders to justify building a planned factory in Mobile, Ala. Los Angeles-based Northrop also has said it would back a split contract if the Pentagon chooses that option.
The Air Force says it badly needs to replace its fleet of more than 450 KC-135 tankers, planes that have been flying since the late 1950s. Previous attempts to buy a replacement have been foiled over the past decade by mismanagement of the competition, feuding between contractors and lawmakers, and a criminal conviction of a top Pentagon contracting officer.