The amazing competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman for the airborne tanker program moved into a new stage when the Joint Requirement Oversight Council met today to consider the freshly drawn requirements. A Joint Staff official confirmed the JROC meeting.
The Air Force drew up the new requirements and the JROC, headed by Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is supposed to make sure the new standards hold up to scrutiny. In practice, the JROC usually approves new requirements since most of the expertise for drafting them resides in the services. Of course, this set will get unusual scrutiny because of its visibility and Cartwright is known as a believer in the council's importance. On top of that, the tanker is the top acquisition priority of both the Air Force and Transportation Command, as Schwartz noted during a press conference here today.
From what little I have heard about the requirements, it seems pretty clear that the Air Force has compressed and simplified the requirements to avoid the likelihood of another award protest but has not changed its mind about what capabilities are needed. Of course, no service types are talking yet about what the new requirements might be in light of the polite gag order issued by Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.
But Rep. Jack Murtha's plan to split the buy -- and avoid what would seem to be an otherwise unavoidable second protest -- would seem to allow both companies some breathing room. The politics of the dual buy are formidable. The Air Force and OSD have opposed the idea, arguing it would cost the service enormous amounts of money and complicate its logistics. But the Air Force's opposition may be at an end -- at least for the initial purchase.
I understand Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, spoke with Chief of Staff Schwartz around the first of the year about the tanker deal. It was after that conversation that Murtha went public with his dual buy proposal. So it would appear that Schwartz has accepted that there is no alternative given the fierce competition between the two companies for the billions at stake.
But if the requirements have not changed substantially then the balance would still seem to tilt toward Northrop Grumman. Northrop has one tanker built, a second airframe ready for conversion to a tanker and could field a total of five or six tankers in the two to four years before Boeing is likely to get a working tanker into the air. So even with a split buy, Northrop should be able to get plenty of time in the air demonstrating its capability and ironing out the inevitable problems that arise early in a program while Boeing would still be building its first planes.
Here is where the politics would become crucial. The powerful Senate defense leaders such as Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain R-Ariz.) have gone quiet, apparently waiting for the budget and for the new RFP. However, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chair of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, has apparently been in discussions with Murtha and so far appears willing to pursue the dual buy. After the initial buy however, Boeing would need substantial support from key appropriators and authorizers to turn the initial buy into regular procurement. So far, it's unclear just how much support they will get. One suggestion -- don't forget the formidable influence Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) can bring to bear on the House Appropriations Committee.