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Boeing to bid on Air Force tanker

Defense contractor Boeing said yesterday that it would bid for the Air Force’s troubled $35-billion refueling plane contract, leaving rival Northrop Grumman to decide if it would make its own attempt to build the long-delayed jets.

Boeing said it plans to offer a military version of its 767 passenger jet for a fleet of 179 new planes. The contract is expected to be the first of several to replace many of the Air Force’s current planes that date back to the 1950s.

It remains to be seen if Boeing’s bitter contest with Northrop will be renewed after two failed Pentagon attempts to pick a winner earlier in the decade.

Northrop has warned that it may not bid on the project, saying the Air Force’s guidelines appear to favor Boeing’s smaller plane. The Northrop variant would likely be based on the larger Airbus A-330 airframe under a partnership Northrop has with Airbus parent EADS.

Randy Belote, a spokesman for Northrop, said the company is still analyzing the Air Force’s request for proposals and will announce its decision when that process is finished.

The Air Force badly needs to replace some of its refueling planes, which gas up fighter jets and other military planes mid-flight, allowing them to fly for longer distances without landing. But past failed attempts to build the plane became symbolic of problems with the way that the Pentagon hands out billions of dollars worth of arms contracts.

The two companies, among the largest U.S. defense contractors, closely contested the contract, backed up by their allies in Congress. A top defense official went to jail for favoring Boeing. A contract award in 2008 to Northrop was later overturned after the Government Accountability Officer deemed it was unfairly given to that company.

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