Gaffe delays US air tanker deal decision

A DECISION on the winner of a US deal to build new air-refuelling tankers is facing more delays after officials sent data to rival bidders EADS and Boeing about each other’s bids – sparking talk that the order could be split between them.

US air force (USAF) officials said they would announce a winner of the battle to replace the military’s tankers early next year, rather than the planned date of December 20.

The USAF earlier this month accidentally sent Boeing and European aerospace giant EADS a limited amount of identical data about each other’s offer to replace Boeing KC-135 tankers, which are about 50 years old.

Both companies immediately returned the data, but the gaffe has prompted suggestions that the USAF may buy aircraft from both bidders to avoid a protest by the losing bidder.

The contract for the tankers has already become embroiled in controversy after the USAF awarded a 179-plane deal to EADS’ North American unit teamed with Northrop Grumman Corp in 2008, only to have it overturned on appeal by Boeing.

Richard Aboulafia of aerospace consultancy Teal Group said the data mix-up lifted the likelihood of a formal protest by whichever firm loses.

“Even if this didn’t happen, it would still be very difficult to successfully and conclusively award a contract to one side. More than ever, it looks like a dual source buy may be the only way forward.”

Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne has suggested buying tankers from both teams to test them and maintain competitive pressure. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has opposed a split buy, partly due to the added cost of using two aircraft types.

The USAF said it was postponing the selection because certain aspects of the competition were taking longer than expected, saying it was unrelated to the “clerical error” that caused the data bungle.