News Releases

Pentagon's Plans Would Bias New Tanker Contest for Airbus

Jul 15 2008

Murray Urges Defense Department to Run a Fair Competition

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Today, in a speech on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) raised concerns about the Pentagon’s plans to re-open its contest to supply the next generation of aerial refueling tankers using new criteria that would benefit the larger plane offered by the European company, Airbus. 

Defense Department officials confirmed their plans to change the criteria last week at a House Armed Services Committee hearing about the tanker competition.

“Instead a fair do-over, it appears that the Pentagon is planning to change the rules to benefit their already chosen winner – Airbus – by awarding greater benefit to a bigger plane,” Senator Murray said in her speech.  “Changing the rules of the game in overtime to benefit Airbus is not the kind of transparency the American taxpayer is looking for in this process.”

The Pentagon’s decision to re-open the contest came a month after the Government Accountability Office found in a blistering ruling that the Air Force’s recent competition was skewed in favor of the European company Airbus – and against Boeing.

In her speech, Murray also pointed out that the Air Force’s original goal in for the procurement was to select a medium-sized tanker – not one as large as the plane offered by Airbus.  She urged the Pentagon to re-think its plans to change the contest and instead use the criteria set out in its original Request for Proposals. 

“For the sake of our service members – and our taxpayers – I hope they will do the right thing, start this competition over using the original RFP, and get these planes out into the field where they are needed,” Murray said.


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

Madam President, I’ve come to the floor today to raise a very important concern.  As my colleagues are aware, our nation’s aerial refueling tanker fleet is aging and badly in need of replacement.  And we are in the process of selecting a new plane that could serve our military for 40 years or more.  These tankers are the backbone of our global military.  They are stationed throughout the world, and they refuel aircraft from every branch of the armed forces. 

I think everyone would agree – especially in a time of war – that as we work to replace our fleet, there is nothing more important than buying the best planes for our airmen and women – and for our taxpayers.
Last month – in its decision sustaining Boeing’s protest of the competition – the Government Accountability Office found that the Air Force made significant errors when it evaluated the bids by Boeing and the European company Airbus.  The GAO found the competition was skewed toward Airbus – even though Airbus failed to meet even basic requirements of the contract.

I was pleased when the Pentagon announced last week that it would rebid the contest and take over the selection process.  I had hoped it would ensure we finally hold a fair and transparent competition and get this contract right.  But instead a fair do-over, it appears that the Pentagon is planning to change the rules to benefit their already chosen winner – Airbus – by awarding greater benefit to a bigger plane.

Madam President, this is shocking, given the number of significant flaws found by the GAO – and how important this competition is to our service members.  Changing the rules of the game in overtime to benefit Airbus is not the kind of transparency the American taxpayer is looking for in this process.

I want to spend a few moments explaining why this is the wrong decision for our service members and our taxpayers.  And I want to begin by reminding my colleagues of the GAO’s findings.

The GAO Decision Was Damning

Madam President, the GAO’s decision was damning, and it left no doubt that the Pentagon should start over and rebid the competition.  The GAO found eight separate errors.  And it described the competition as “unreasonable,” “improper,” and “misleading.”  Among its findings were that:

  • The Air Force changed direction about which criteria were more important.
    • o It didn’t give Boeing credit for providing a more capable plane according to the Air Force’s description of what it wanted.
    • o Yet it gave Airbus extra credit for offering amenities it didn’t ask for.
  • And the Air Force accepted Airbus’s proposal – even though it 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. 

Madam President, some of my colleagues have tried to downplay the GAO’s ruling.  They say that because the GAO upheld eight points of protest – and not 25 or 100 – the results were somehow less significant.  Well, I think they should go back and read the GAO’s report one more time – because the list speaks for itself. 

The GAO found fundamental problems – including that Air Force couldn’t even prove that the Airbus plane could actually refuel all of our aircraft by the books.  And it determined that but for these errors, Boeing could have won.  As Daniel Gordon – the deputy general counsel for the GAO – said last week when he was asked about this issue before the House Armed Services Committee, “We don’t focus on this being seven out of 100….  We focus on the seven that we found that caused us to sustain the protest.” 

Starting Over With New Criteria Would be Unfair

Madam President, I remind my colleagues about the GAO findings because after reading the decision, the next step should be obvious.  The Pentagon should return to the original Request for Proposals, and start this competition over.  But instead, officials say they plan to change the criteria in order to benefit a larger plane.  And that is my first concern.

Madam President, when the right course for the Pentagon to take is so clear, I have to ask why in the world it would change the rules now – unless the Defense Department is hoping to skew the competition in favor of Airbus yet again.  My colleagues will remember that compared to Boeing’s 767, Airbus’s A-330 is massive.  Clearly, giving greater benefit to a larger plane would only help Airbus at Boeing’s expense.  And it would be blatantly unfair. 

Why should the Pentagon give extra credit only to Airbus?  The Air Force itself found that the Boeing tanker was more survivable – or better able to keep the warfighter safe.  That is a clear advantage.  And I think most Americans would agree that giving our airmen and women the safest plane should count for more.

The Pentagon has Forgotten that its Goal was a Mid-sized Tanker
But Madam President, I don’t just object because the Pentagon’s new criteria could unfairly skew this new competition.  I am also very concerned that the Pentagon has lost sight of why it needs these tankers.  It appears to me that by changing the rules in favor of a larger tanker, the Defense Department is pushing the military further and further away from the goals it had when it started the replacement process.  And I’m not the only one who has raised this issue.

Retired Air Force General John Handy – a former leader of the Transportation and Air Mobility Commands – pointed out in a recent article that the Air Force originally asked for a mid-sized tanker in its RFP because that is what the military needs in order to carry out its mission.  The Air Force already has a large tanker – the KC-10 – which has its own role in the Air Force.

Madam President, mid-sized tankers are the Air Force’s multi-taskers.  They are designed to respond to needs all over the world at a moment’s notice.  They must able to use as many of our hangars, ramps, and runways as possible.  And they must be flexible enough to allow our warfighters to refuel aircraft during combat – or to haul freight or passengers – and return home safely.

General Handy is one of many experts and observers who have questioned what the Air Force was thinking when it selected the larger Airbus tanker in the first competition – because compared to the 767, the A-330 simply wouldn’t do the job as well.  I, too, have asked repeatedly for the Defense Department to justify its decision – and I have yet to receive any clear-cut answers – not from the White House, not from the Pentagon, and not from the Air Force.

But I think that General Handy has identified one possible reason.  As he put it, “Somewhere along the acquisition process, it is obvious to me that someone lost sight of the requirement.”  And unfortunately, it is our service members – and our taxpayers – who will end up paying the price.

The Pentagon Can Still Do This Right

Now, Madam President, the Defense Department’s decision isn’t set in stone.  It hasn’t officially re-opened this competition.  The Pentagon can still go back to the original RFP and run a fair contest.  And it can ensure that our service members get the best tanker possible – one that will enable them to do their jobs and get home safely.

And so I urge the Pentagon to rethink the decision to change the selection criteria.  For the sake of our service members – and our taxpayers – I hope they will do the right thing, start this competition over using the original RFP, and get these planes out into the field where they are needed.