I’m going to stick my neck out and predict Boeing will not protest the award of the KC-X tanker contract to Northrop and Airbus. Boeing gets debriefed by the US Air Force today (7 March) and will decide over the weekend whether to protest. But I don’t think they will find anything to fault in Air Force’s source selection from the moment the final RFP was released on 30 January last year to the 29 February announcement that Northrop had won.
I suspect Boeing lost before the bids even went in. I think the last-minute changes that were made before the final RFP was released – subtle adjustments that were made because Northrop was threatening not to bid, and the USAF desperately needed a competition – changed the character of that competition. The USAF didn’t change its requirements, but it did allow its evaluators to consider capabilities beyond the baseline requirement, which was for a medium tanker to replace the KC-135. That opened to door to the larger KC-30, which was always going to look better on paper than the KC-767.
Question is, did Boeing fail to appreciate the import of those changes to the final RFP, or was it simply too late in the day for it to switch horses to the KC-777, which after all was just a brochure? And why, if the evaluation process was as transparent as the Air Force claims, did Boeing never get an inkling its aircraft was too small?
From the Air Force’s description of the source selection process, it is clear the aircraft were not compared until both bids had been separately evaluated and scored. After a series of interim reviews with each bidder, it’s likely both teams were looking at greens across the board – totally unaware their greens didn’t mean the same things.
That’s clear from the stunned reaction of both bidders to the 29 February announcement. Northrop and EADS had spent so much time working up their respose to losing the contract they were unprepared for winning and stumbled over each other in their efforts to defuse the political furor over the impact on jobs (American and French!).