UPDATED: CSAF Says Competition Must Be "Pristine as Possible;" Punchy Northrop Grumman Comment
Defense Secretary Robert Gates will allow the Air Force to select the winner of the KC-X tanker competition, although he said "my office will continue to have a robust oversight role."
Gates made the announcement in a Wednesday morning speech at the Air Force Association's annual conference, eliciting applause from many of the more than 500 people listening to him.
However, on top of his pointed note that his office will oversee the process, Gates also said, "I don't need to belabor the importance of getting this done soon and done right... We are committed to the integrity of the selection process, and cannot afford the kind of letdowns, parochial squabbles, and corporate food fights that have bedeviled this effort in the past."
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told reporters later that the service must "make every aspect of the competition as pristine as possible to prevent even the temptation of a protest." Schwartz also said that the SecDef "is confident we have a team that can push this across the goal line."
The chairman of the Air Force Association's board, Joe Sutter, told DoD Buzz that Gates' decision was an important "mark of confidence" in the service. Sutter also said he heard someone ask Gates after the speech if it was a close call. "Not really," the secretary replied -- according to Sutter. That would indicate that Gates' confidence in the technical abilities of Air Force acquisition experts and of the service's leadership has been restored after the battering it took when Boeing won its protest over the initial contract award.
Air Force Secretary Mike Donley said the service was "pleased" with Gates' announcement, noting that the tanker is the service's "number one priority."
Boeing, one of the two competitors, put out a statement after the secretary's speech. "Boeing is ready for the release of the Draft Request for Proposal, and will be looking for clarity in how the service's requirements will be defined and prioritized," said spokesman William Barksdale in an email statement.
Northrop Grumman came out swinging: "Northrop Grumman is pleased that a decision has been made and we are looking forward to competing and winning the tanker contract again," said spokesman Randy Belote in an email.