USAF Tanker Firewall

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By Amy Butler

Fire-walling procedures to fence off data in a modeling tool used in selecting a Northrop Grumman/EADS refueling tanker design for the U.S. Air Force prevented any unfair advantage for the winner, even though the tool used to assess the bidders was designed by eventual winner Northrop Grumman, according to the Air Force.

Boeing raised concerns about this and other issues, including changes to the assumptions for operational scenarios used in the modeling tool, in a March 7, 2007, letter to Sandra Palmatier, a contracting officer for the KC-X program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. These factors gave an advantage to Northrop Grumman/EADSs A330-based tanker, which is larger than the 767-based Boeing design, officials on the losing team contend.

The Government Accountability Office is reviewing a March 11 protest of the Air Forces Feb. 29 decision to award the $35 billion contract to Northrop Grumman/EADS.

Aviation Week & Space Technology obtained a copy of the March 7 letter and the U.S. Air Forces March 29 response. This correspondence was taking place privately between Boeing and the Air Force. Although both competitors said publicly that the competition was expected to be fair, the letters show that concern over how the competition was proceeding began setting in far earlier at Boeing, once thought to be the shoo-in, than its executives had let on publicly.

The correspondence also shines light on the internal workings of a process that forced the Air Force to walk a fine line. The service was trying to craft a competition between two dissimilar commercially derived products, and establishing requirements for the duel proved to be a complex balancing act between the opposing contractors -- both of which considered dropping out.

The Combined Mating and Ranging Planning System (Cmarps) was designed for the Strategic Air Command in the 1980s and is now used by planners in Air Mobility Command. It helps operators assess how many tankers are required for a variety of missions, where they can be based and how many receivers -- fighters and intelligence aircraft, for example -- can be serviced by the available refuelers. It is one of various modeling systems used by the Air Force.

Boeing points out in its March 7, 2007, letter that Cmarps was designed by, and has been used by, Northrop Grumman, giving its competitor an advantage due to its experience using the system. Boeing complained of problems we have experienced in Cmarps, including difficulties operating the model, the need for manuals and the need for training on the Cmarps tool. One industry official not affiliated with either Boeing or Northrop Grumman says that Cmarps is known to be manpower-intensive and demands a learning curve before operating successfully.

The Air Force tried to assuage Boeings concerns. Dedicated computers were purchased to ensure no inadvertent electronic transfers occur between analysts at the system program office evaluating the proposals and Northrop Grumman, says a March 29, 2007, letter from Joseph Leising, another contracting officer in Ohio, to Boeing.

During the early part of 2007, USAF also made changes to some of the operational assumptions used to gauge the performance of the offerings from Northrop Grumman/EADS. These changes form a large part of the basis for Boeings protest of the decision.

Two major combat operations scenarios were tweaked to add additional ramp space in the Cmarps model that doesnt actually exist. This allowed for the KC-30 to gain enough access at a priority base, according to Boeing officials, that it otherwise would have been too large to achieve. Limited ramp space can make operations with larger aircraft more difficult, because of tight parking and ground maneuver space. Though company and Air Force officials didnt identify that location -- the operational scenarios are actually classified -- it could be Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. According to an earlier Air Force analysis of various tanker models, only four A330-based tankers can operate from that base assuming 30 ft. of space between rows of parked aircraft and interior taxi ways as well as a standard 50 ft. wingtip-to-wingtip distance between for aircraft parking.

Space between parked aircraft, however, was another change made by the Air Force during the competition, Boeing says. The service cut the space between parked tankers in half, to 25 ft., according to Boeing. The company says this change doesnt accurately reflect operations in the field as articulated in the Mobility Capability Study 2005, a classified assessment of mobility needs by the Pentagon. The Air Force countered in its March 29 letter, saying that the shift to 25 ft. separation between parked aircraft accurately reflects contingency operations at constrained employment bases.

Read more on the tanker firewall and other aeronautical scoops from our friends at Aviation Week.

-- Christian

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