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Leaders bemoan loss of tanker contract

GULF COAST — Mississippi officials expressed both disappointment and disgust with a Pentagon process that prompted Northrop Grumman Corp. to drop out of the competition for an Air Force refueling tanker contract.

The Northrop proposal had set off a celebration along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Mobile, Ala., area, where some 2,000 jobs would be created to help build the aircraft.

But the large design of the Northrop tanker fell out of favor over the past two years as rival Boeing Co. kept up the pressure for its own smaller model. The Defense Department redid the contract’s specifications and Northrop Grumman announced Monday that it won’t compete, leaving Boeing the lone bidder.

Northrop CEO Wes Bush said the new guideline “clearly favors Boeing’s smaller refueling tanker.”

“It’s a shame Northrop Grumman was compelled to pull out of the bidding on the Air Force tanker contract,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement Monday.

“The process used to choose the companies that build for the military should encourage competition instead of discouraging it. Sole-sourcing is not fair to America’s war fighters, the Air Force or the American taxpayer,” Barbour said.

The reaction contrasted sharply with the jubilation of 2008, when Northrop and its partner European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. won the original bid. That award was scrapped after a Boeing Co. protest.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said called the process a “charade.”

“The final RFP clearly stacked the deck for Boeing’s smaller, less capable plane. This is a regrettable result for the American taxpayer and for our national defense.

“I regret this outcome for the thousands of American workers across the country including those in Mississippi and Alabama who were not given a fair chance to compete for next generation aerospace jobs,” Wicker said.

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said the Pentagon’s planned acquisition of an aerial tanker replacement “has taken far too long and been subject to too many missteps.”

“For a program of this scope, a competitive award would have resulted in a better value for the warfighter and the nation,” Cochran said.

“Is it a tremendous disappointment? Yes,” George Freeland, head of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation, told the Mobile Press-Register. “But the reality is this region still possesses all the ingredients necessary to support new aerospace and technical development and job creation.”

Alabama officials also said they were disgusted, verbally lashing the Pentagon.

“I don’t blame Northrop Grumman for refusing to take part in this charade,” Republican Gov. Bob Riley said in a statement. “The Pentagon and White House have made it impossible for any other plane to be competitive. It’s disgraceful.”

The Pentagon defended the program as fair and said both companies could compete effectively. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the program would not be reworked just to ensure a competition.

“To suggest that the department should conduct a competition that would result in DOD paying a much higher price for capabilities that are not needed simply isn’t effective,” Whitman said.


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