Defense Secretary Robert Gates was right to reopen the multibillion-dollar tanker competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman-EADS.

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Reopening the multibillion-dollar tanker competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman and its Airbus parent, European Aeronautic Defence & Space (EADS), is good for this state and necessary for the nation. But it has to be done right.

Boeing’s initial bid was a sordid affair that gave cause for Sen. John McCain and others to open the contract to participation by the Northrop-Airbus team. Then a thumb was put on the scale to help the Northrop-Airbus consortium win.

Boeing protested this, backed by Sen. Patty Murray, Rep. Norm Dicks and others in our delegation. The Government Accountability Office report gave them ground to stand on, and they made the most of it. When the national press refers to “lawmakers from Washington and Kansas” raising hell, Murray’s name comes up first. For this, our senior senator deserves senior credit.

Credit also Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to take away the decision-making power from the Air Force. As Rep. Dicks said, on this matter “no one has any faith in the Air Force.”

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Whether the Pentagon will do it right remains to be seen. Gates would like to make the decision by December, before he leaves office. But the central problem was that Air Force brass changed their minds about the kind of tanker they wanted, and did not give Boeing clear direction.

If the Air Force wants a larger tanker than originally specified — and apparently it does — it has to give each bidder time to design one.

No rush to do this by December. It must be done right. This is a behemoth contract, worth profits and jobs and votes in Mount Rainier proportions. Each side has tasted the juices of victory, only to have it ripped from its teeth. Each side will examine every step for evidence of bias.

We hope Boeing wins. But it has to be a fair fight. If the Northrop-Airbus bid has the best product, judged by genuine military needs and full life-cycle cost, so be it.

But, as Sen. Murray says, “It is time to go back and hold a truly transparent competition that does our war fighters and taxpayers justice.”

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