KC-X competition delayed as evaluation process complicated by politics, USAF errors

Washington DC
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The US Air Force has acknowledged extending the evaluation process on the KC-X tanker competition into early next year amid new upheavals caused by political changes and a major procedural gaffe.

The Republican Party's takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2 November election changes the political context of the highly charged competition to replace the Boeing KC-135 tanker fleet with either a Boeing KC-767 or an Airbus A330-200 derivative offered by EADS North America.

Represenative Norm Dicks, a Washington-based Democrat and staunch Boeing partisan, loses chairmanship of the powerful defence appropriations committee, becoming the minority leader. Meanwhile, Representative Todd Tiahrt, another key Boeing ally from Kansas, lost his seat in the House after a failed bid for a Senate seat.

EADS North America chief executive Sean O'Keefe, who publicly discussed KC-X on 22 November for the first time since surviving an aircraft crash in Alaska four months ago, says the Republican takeover of the House is a positive signal for the Airbus tanker bid.

Meanwhile, O'Keefe declines to rule out the possibility of filing a protest before the contract award is even decided.

USAF officials acknowledge committing an embarrassing - and possibly disruptive - error by sending packages with proprietary information to the wrong bidders. The mistake was realised and corrected before either company gained access to their competitors' secrets, according to the USAF.

But the damage in some ways had already been done, leaving both bidders to wonder if they can trust the USAF's judgement after such a blunder.

Asked whether EADS has any concern that Boeing obtained proprietary data during the exchange, O'Keefe says: "I suspect probably no more or no less so than they're concerned about any disclosure we may have received."

O'Keefe, however, notes that USAF officials had established a record of fair dealings during the latest round of the KC-X competition before committing the latest mistake. "The benefit of the doubt will always be extended by virtue of their past performance record," he says.

Boeing declines to comment about the incident, but one of the company's strong supporters has raised concerns about the USAF's procedural mishap.

"The additional delays combined with careless handling of sensitive data cannot be tolerated," says Tiahrt, who will remain in Congress until late January. "We have thousands of American workers standing by who are ready to build the next generation air refuelling tankers, but the air force continues to act without a sense of urgency."