The decision to uphold the Boeing protest of the airborne tanker award to Northrop Grumman Corp. raises fundamental questions about the ability of the Air Force -- and the Pentagon in general -- to buy weapons effectively, according to lawmakers, congressional aides and defense analysts.
"The GAO's decision in the tanker protest reveals serious errors in the Air Force's handling of this critically important competition. We now need not only a new full, fair and open competition in compliance with the GAO recommendations, but also a thorough review of -- and accountability for -- the process that produced such a flawed result," said the Senate's senior defense lawmaker, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in a June 18 statement.
The congressional Government Accountability Office upheld Boeing's protest of a $35 billion Air Force tanker contract awarded to Northrop Grumman and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space, and it recommended that the service hold a new competition. The GAO said it found "a number of significant errors" that could have affected the outcome of "what was a close competition."
The contract for 179 aerial refueling tankers is the first of three deals worth up to $100 billion to replace the Air Force's entire tanker fleet over the next 30 years.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee was more understated in his criticism.
"The GAO did its work, and the Air Force is going to have to go back and do its work more thoroughly," Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, a vociferous Boeing supporter, said the GAO criticisms "were a scathing indictment of the Air Force's process.
A congressional aide said the Air Force may be on the brink of collapse from the accumulated weight of bad acquisition, personnel and strategic decisions.
"You have to ask how much more can the Air Force take. Are they really that broken? Not just on acquisition but across the board. Are they more broken than any other services or is it just their time in the glass house?" the senior congressional aide said.
This aide, who has been sharply critical of Air Force acquisition practices in the past, said that the ruling by the Government Accountability Office makes the appointment of the next Air Force Chief of Staff "more than a critical appointment. They need a miracle worker."
A defense analyst said the Air Force -- and the military in general -- now faces a crippled system for buying anything.
"At this point the procurement system is so broken that I believe that we are at a structural disarmament point, and we certainly will not fund a strike Air Force," the analyst said. This source noted that the Air Force lost its bid to buy more F-22s and pointed to the Navy and Coast Guard's broken acquisition efforts as further sign of the crippled state of Pentagon acquisition.
The head of Boeing's tanker programs, Mark McGraw, said the company welcomed the ruling, "fully supporting the grounds of our protest. We appreciate the professionalism and diligence the GAO showed in its review of the KC-X acquisition process. We look forward to working with the Air Force on next steps in this critical procurement for our warfighters."
While the GAO decision is not binding, it puts tremendous pressure on the Air Force to reopen the contract and could help Boeing capture part or all of the award. It also gives ammunition to Boeing supporters in Congress who have been seeking to block funding for the deal or force a new competition.
-- Colin Clark