In a politically charged competition for a multi-billion dollar contract, personalities, egos, suspected malfeasance and breath-taking blunders conspire to deny a critical combat capability to the US Air Force.

Sound familiar?

Some may recognise the hallmarks of the decade-long pursuit of the KC-X tanker, a process tarnished again when USAF competitive assessments were sent inadvertently to the wrong bidders.

But the unfortunate scenario also describes an early 1960s weapon systems contract called TFX, which eventually led to the selection of the General Dynamics F-111, a worthy aircraft born of controversy.

As the Royal Australian Air Force prepares to formally retire the F-111, it is worth pausing to consider the lessons from two of the USAF's perhaps most avoidably controversial weapons decisions.

In both projects, controversy began with a decision that seemed virtuous to a top decision-maker but inflammatory - if not scandalous - to a powerful senator.

On 21 November 1962, defence secretary Robert McNamara overruled his most senior generals and admirals, who favoured Boeing's TFX bid. McNamara, however, believed Boeing's cost estimates relied on too many optimistic assumptions about an unproven engine and titanium structure.

The fact that McNamara reached his conclusion without any paper studies and largely on the basis of a single meeting over breakfast with a few close aides did not impress Boeing's allies in Congress, including the powerful Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, who became a sworn enemy of the TFX project, conspiring with Senator John McClellan to call a series of investigations and hearings over McNamara's surprise decision. In the process, two of McNamara's close aides were accused of having a financial stake in the outcome, having previously worked in the private sector at law firms and banks linked to General Dynamics.

Forty years on, we've seen a feud between air force secretary Jim Roche, who backed a controversial lease deal with Boeing, and Senator John McCain, who doggedly fought the proposal as an abuse of tax dollars.

It was clear that the feud had become personal, but just how personal became evident earlier this month when ousted air force boss Roche told the Washingtonian magazine that, blaming McCain for betraying their friendship in the late 1980s, he'd vowed never to let the powerful Arizona senator beat him.

Source: Flight International