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‘Aerospace Corridor’ hits roadblock with tanker rebid decision

The announcement in March that the Department of Defense had awarded Northrop Grumman/EADS the contract to build refueling tankers for the United States Air Force was met with great delight by economic development officials on the Gulf Coast.

That’s because Northrop Grumman has a huge presence in that region and the manufacturing of the KC-45 Tanker would have had a significant impact there.

George Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation said during his presentation at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting this spring that the KC-45 would be a centerpiece of the Coast’s efforts to turn Interstate 10 into an “aerospace corridor” that would create hundreds of high-paying jobs and give a much-needed economic jolt to the area in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Working together

Freeland and other economic development officials on the Mississippi and Alabama coasts have joined hands in an effort to attract projects affiliated with that area’s thriving aerospace industry, led by Hancock County’s John C. Stennis Space Center, which tests rocket engines for NASA.

“The Mississippi Coast is not some passive participant in the aerospace industry,” Freeland said in May. “We are a leader in aerospace development.”

That enthusiasm ran into a roadblock July 9 when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that the contract for the tanker would open up again for bidding following a protest by Northrop Grumman’s chief rival, Seattle-based Boeing.

Boeing had protested the March announcement that its chief competitor would build the tankers that would eventually replace the Air Force’s fleet of KC-135 refueling tankers.

Long road here

the late 1990s and early part of this decade, the USAF decided that its aging fleet of refueling tankers needed replacing. The initial plan to replenish the fleet was the government’s decision to lease from a tanker based on the Boeing’s 767.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield pulled the plug on that idea after revelations of corruption on the awarding of it and controversy surround the leasing and not outright purchase of the planes after the General Accounting Office (GAO) raised concerns. The bidding began again, and Northrop Grumman/EADS landed the job, under heavy protest from Boeing.

Gates’ decision to reopen an expedited bidding process was generally well-received in Washington. Interim Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker said in a news release that the “decision provides a responsible way forward that will ensure the Air Force tanker contract is awarded on the merits of the proposals. With the current tanker fleet consisting of planes that are on average 47 years old, it is critically important that newer and safer tankers are fielded without unnecessary political meddling. Members of Congress should support this expedited re-competition process that will efficiently resolve the concerns raised by the GAO.”

Clear winner?

Gov. Haley Barbour made it clear where he came down on the issue.

“We expect the Department of Defense to get the best product for our military and taxpayers, and I expect that to be the Northrop Grumman/EADS tanker,” Barbour said in a statement.

Freeland had not returned a message seeking comment on the rebidding process as of press time.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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