The parent company of European aircraft maker Airbus yesterday selected four Southern states as finalists for a $600 million U.S. factory to build refueling...

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WASHINGTON — The parent company of European aircraft maker Airbus yesterday selected four Southern states as finalists for a $600 million U.S. factory to build refueling tankers for the U.S. military.

Sites in Mobile, Ala.; Melbourne, Fla.; Kiln, Miss.; and North Charleston, S.C., will compete for the right to host the U.S. factory, which could begin operations as soon as next year.

“The site we ultimately select will be our partner in creating the U.S. industrial capacity necessary to produce the best, most capable aerial-refueling tanker aircraft for the U.S. Air Force,” said Ralph Crosby Jr., chairman and chief executive of EADS North America.

EADS — European Aeronautic, Defence & Space — is Airbus’ parent.

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The short list was drawn from more than 70 sites in 32 states that responded to an initial feeler in January, EADS spokesman Guy Hicks said in announcing an accelerated selection schedule.

Three of Washington state’s Economic Development Councils were among the bidders, proposing sites in Moses Lake, Everett and Spokane.

France-based EADS has said it hoped to build a refueling tanker to compete with the Boeing 767 for a multibillion-dollar Air Force contract to replace the aging fleet of Boeing-built KC-135 tankers.

Congress last year nullified a potential $23 billion deal with Boeing amid a growing ethics scandal that led to guilty pleas by two top Boeing executives.

The Pentagon is expected to reopen the deal to competition later this year.

The four finalists will have until the end of May to submit a detailed bid. EADS North America said it expects to select the site by July, rather than by the end of the year as first planned.

The process has been speeded up “to align EADS North America’s industrial activities with the potential acquisition schedule of the U.S. Air Force,” a company statement said.

Rand, a not-for-profit research company, is due to complete by August a study of tanker-modernization options for the Air Force.

“The estimate is we can begin the competition in fiscal 2006,” which starts in October, assuming the Air Force decides to launch one, said Douglas Karas, an Air Force spokesman.

Boeing, the Pentagon’s second-biggest supplier after Lockheed Martin, declined to comment.

Initially, EADS plans an engineering center that would employ 100 to 150 people.

If the company wins the Air Force contract, it would team with a U.S. defense contractor to build the factory, which could employ as many as 1,100 people.

Speculation has centered on a possible partnership with Northrop Grumman, but officials from both companies said yesterday no deal has been reached.

Northrop CEO Ronald Sugar visited Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, this week to meet EADS executives, people familiar with the matter said.

A Northrop spokesman, Randy Belote, said, “We don’t comment on travels of our senior executives or with whom they may or may not be meeting.”

Belote added, “If indeed there is going to be a fair, full and open competition on a tanker-replacement program, Northrop will examine all options … one of which could include partnering with EADS.”

EADS spokesman Hicks said, “We’ve made it clear our intention to build the best American team, but I can’t comment on who team members might be at this point.”

Information from Reuters is included in this report.