The US Air Force has backed off committing to any schedule for awarding the controversial KC-X tanker contract despite entering what was expected to be the final weeks of a protracted evaluation process.

"Source selection is moving toward completion, and that's all we have [to say] with regard to timing," Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said on 12 January.

The two competitors vying for the contract, however, took different stands. On 11 January, EADS North America chief executive officer Sean O'Keefe told reporters in Paris that he expects contract award in February. Jim Albaugh, president of Boeing Commercial Aircraft, is not so confident: "I'm not holding my breath."

Albaugh explained there is an intense focus on the competition to build 179 tankers, with the Boeing KC-767 NewGen Tanker competing against the Airbus A330-based EADS KC-45.

"Whatever decision is made is one that is going to undergo a lot of scrutiny," Albaugh said, "and if I were to hazard a guess on a date I would say later rather than sooner."

The USAF has already extended the evaluation three times, back-tracking since early 2010 from scheduling contract award in November, to late 2010, to "early 2011". Now, the USAF refuses to provide any date or timeframe for the decision at all.

A mistake revealed by USAF acquisition officials on 19 November served to roil the debate over the evaluation process. Two service officials, who have since been fired, accidentally shipped evaluation data to the wrong bidders. A page containing Boeing's data was glimpsed by by EADS staff before the mistake was discovered.

That error raised questions about the credibility of the USAF's acquisition process, which has already seen one contract for new tankers overturned by the Government Accountability Office in 2008 and another deal caught up in a conflict of interest scandal four years earlier.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee has called a hearing on 1 February to question USAF officials about the document mistake revealed in November.

It is not clear how the timing of the Senate hearing will affect the USAF's decision, but service officials may have "difficulty" responding to the senators' questions while privately evaluating the competitors' bids, Donley says.

Source: Flight International