News Releases

Murray Skeptical About Pentagon Plans to Re-open Tanker Contest

Jul 10 2008

Murray: Changing Tanker Selection Criteria Would Taint New Process

 - Floor Speech

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – In a speech on the Senate floor today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) responded to the Defense Department’s plans to re-open the competition to supply the military’s next generation of aerial refueling tankers.  The Pentagon’s decision comes a month after the Government Accountability Office found that the Air Force’s recent contest was blatantly skewed in favor of the European company Airbus.

Murray said in her speech that she is glad that the Pentagon wants to rebid and move swiftly to select a tanker.  But she also is extremely concerned that the Pentagon now plans to use new selection criteria that could, yet again, bias the contest in favor of the plane offered by Airbus, which is much larger than the Air Force originally requested. 

Murray has learned that the Defense Department plans to re-evaluate the lifecycle costs of both tankers using a 25-year life span instead of a more accurate 40 years, and that it wants to revise the Request for Proposals to benefit a larger tanker – even if that means the tanker it buys isn’t as capable of meeting the military’s mission.  

“In its decision last month, the GAO said that the Request for Proposals was crystal clear about what kind of tanker the Air Force needed,” Senator Murray said in her speech.  “Changing the rules of the game in overtime will simply result in a repeat of the last contest – an unfair result, more protests and more delays.”

“I look forward to hearing a thorough explanation from the Defense Department about how it will carry out this new competition – and how it will ensure that this contract is fair,” Murray added.  “We must have a competition that isn’t overshadowed by questions of ethics or competence.  If we don’t, we risk another challenge that will draw out the procurement process even further.  Even more importantly – we have to get the right plane.” 

The following are Senator Murray’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Madam President, three weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office issued a blistering decision about the Air Force’s handling of one of the most important defense contracts in history.

The GAO found that – in the competition between Boeing and the European company Airbus to replace our military’s aerial refueling tankers – the contest was unfairly skewed toward Airbus from the beginning.  And it said that but for the Air Force’s prejudice, Boeing would have had a substantial chance of winning.  The GAO was clear and emphatic that the Pentagon should reopen the contract, get new proposals, and correct the errors.

I rise because yesterday, Defense Secretary Gates announced that he would follow the GAO recommendations and rebid the contract.  I’m pleased that he says he is committed to a swift decision.  But I’ve also been a close observer of the Pentagon’s decision-making process for many years now.  And I know that the devil is always in the details.  We don’t yet know many of the details on this latest decision.  And unfortunately, I am already skeptical about whether the Pentagon is on track to get this right.

GAO Raised Serious Questions

Madam President, the Defense Department has a high hurdle to clear in order to ensure this competition is fair and transparent.  As I said earlier, the GAO raised serious questions about the Air Force’s previous decision.  And it described the competition as “unreasonable,” “improper,” and “misleading.” 

The GAO found that the Air Force changed direction midstream about which criteria were more important. 

  • It didn’t give Boeing credit for providing a more capable plane according to the Air Force’s description of what it wanted. 
  • Yet it gave Airbus extra credit for offering amenities it didn’t ask for.

It said the Air Force deliberately – and unreasonably – increased Boeing’s estimated costs.  When the mistake was corrected, it was discovered that the Airbus tanker actually costs tens of millions of dollars more than Boeing’s.

And it said that the Air Force accepted Airbus’s proposal – even though Airbus couldn’t meet two key contract requirements.

  • First, Airbus refused to commit to providing long-term maintenance as specified in the RFP – even after the Air Force asked for it repeatedly.
  • And second, the Air Force couldn’t prove that Airbus could refuel all of the military’s aircraft according to procedure.  

This Can’t Happen Again

Madam President, those are serious findings.  It’s still unclear whether the errors were due to incompetence or impropriety.  But the result was that the military chose a plane that didn’t meet fundamental requirements set out in the RFP. 

That can’t happen again.  The Defense Department must do everything it can to ensure this competition is fair and transparent.  And that means that:

  • The Pentagon must go back to the original Request for Proposals.
  • It must ensure that both of the companies get the same information throughout the entire competition.
  • It must prove that the tanker it selects can actually perform all of the missions required by the military.
  • It must do a full accounting of all of the lifecycle costs of flying and operating both planes.
  • And it must ensure that the companies can only earn credit as it was spelled out in the original RFP.

Madam President, that last point is very important.  In its decision last month, the GAO said that the Request for Proposals was crystal clear about what kind of tanker the Air Force needed.  Yet I’ve already heard that the Defense Department plans to re-evaluate the lifecycle costs of both tankers using a 25-year life span instead of a more accurate 40 years.  And it wants to revise the RFP to give greater benefit to a larger plane – even if that means the tanker it buys isn’t as capable of meeting the mission. 

That fundamentally changes the rules of the procurement and is not what was in the original RFP.

I am very concerned about both of these proposals.  Changing the rules of the game in overtime will simply result in a repeat of the last contest – an unfair result, more protests and more delays.  I look forward to hearing a thorough explanation from the Defense Department about how it will carry out this new competition – and how it will ensure that this contract is fair. 

We Need to Get the Right Plane

Finally, Madam President, I agree with Secretary Gates that it is vitally important that we move quickly to finish this contract.  The airmen and women at Fairchild Air Force Base in my home state of Washington fly these tankers.  I know they need these planes – and they need them now. 

But we also have to do this the right way – we must have a competition that isn’t overshadowed by questions of ethics or competence.  If we don’t, we risk another challenge that will draw out the procurement process even further.  Even more importantly, we have to get the right plane. 

Our aerial refueling tankers are the backbone of our global military strength.  They are stationed across the world, and they refuel aircraft from every branch of the armed forces.  Before we spend 35 billion of their dollars, our taxpayers deserve to know that the planes we are buying can actually refuel our military’s aircraft.  And our service members deserve to know that they are getting the plane that will enable them to do their jobs and return home safely.