Lawmakers on Thursday demanded a detailed explanation of what went wrong with the Air Force's management of a $40 billion tanker contract...

Share story

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Thursday demanded a detailed explanation of what went wrong with the Air Force’s management of a $40 billion tanker contract awarded to Northrop Grumman and its European partner over Boeing.

“This isn’t the first time the acquisition system has failed,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee.

Lawmakers sought clarity from Defense Department officials and congressional investigators on whether the recent competition’s failure was confined to the Air Force or indicative of a more systemic problem among the Pentagon’s procurement process.

“Is it too complex? Do we have the right people? Do they have the right training?” Abercrombie asked.

Lawmakers also pressed for details on how the Pentagon would proceed with the re-competition of the tanker deal that Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Wednesday to avoid future mistakes.

The Government Accountability Office last month detailed “significant errors” the Air Force made in the original award to Northrop and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space. The GAO said Boeing, which protested the deal, might have won had the service not made mistakes in evaluating the bids.

GAO Deputy General Counsel Daniel Gordon told the committee, however, that the process was marred only by mistakes in evaluating data.

“Bias, undue influence or other intentional wrongdoing was not alleged by Boeing nor did the GAO see any evidence of such intentional wrongful conduct by the Air Force,” he said.

Congress has been highly critical of the Air Force’s management of the tanker competition, arguing the latest botched contract continues a recent string of acquisition failures by the service, including a $15 billion deal awarded to Boeing in 2006 for search-and-rescue helicopters, which was later challenged by Lockheed Martin. A new contract has yet to be awarded.

In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Boeing supporter Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., raised concerns the Pentagon’s new selection criteria for the tanker contract would likely “bias the contest” in favor of the Airbus plane.

“Changing the rules of the game in overtime will simply result in a repeat of the last contest: an unfair result, more protests and more delays,” Murray said.

Information on Gordon’s testimony was reported by Bloomberg News.