In the process that awarded the Long Range Strike Bomber contract to Northrop Grumman, the Pentagon went to great lengths to avoid a replay of Boeing’s successful challenge to the original Airbus win on the Air Force tanker program.
Boeing faces long odds if it decides to protest the Pentagon’s award of the Long Range Strike Bomber contract to Northrop Grumman.
Clearly eager to avoid repeating the debacle of the decadelong Air Force tanker-procurement process — when a Boeing protest eventually reversed the original award to Airbus — the Pentagon insists it built independent oversight into the bomber- selection task.
Boeing said Tuesday it wants to learn from a Pentagon debriefing Friday “how the competition was scored in terms of price and risk,” which could lay the groundwork for a protest.
For its part, Northrop Grumman unveiled a website inviting people to send a pre-written form letter to specific members of Congress, urging them to make sure the $80 billion project now “moves forward without delay.”
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Unlike the tanker, when the criteria used to select the winner were known to and endlessly debated by members of Congress alleging elements of bias, all details of the bomber program — including the selection criteria — are classified.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute who has consulted both for Boeing and its partner in the bomber competition, Lockheed Martin, believes that creates a high hurdle.
“You launch a protest when you think you have a reasonable chance of success,” said Thompson. “It’s very hard to do that when a program is secret.”
The Pentagon’s advance efforts to try to ensure a bulletproof outcome and shut out any possible protest by the loser focused on lining up independent approval of its selection process.
In September, the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Defense (DOD) — whose investigators and auditors provide oversight of the department — performed an audit specifically on the acquisition process for the bomber.
The audit report, completed seven weeks before the award was announced, is classified, according to a notice on the DOD website.
The Pentagon went ahead with its announcement Tuesday, so presumably the audit found the process clean.
Briefing reporters last week ahead of the announcement, William LaPlante, assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, said he personally appointed an independent person, referred to as the Source Selection Authority, to run the acquisition process.
He said that person’s identity is known only to those involved in the process and is kept secret to preserve independence.
Air Force spokesman Maj. Robert Leese subsequently said this is someone from “outside the bomber program,” though he declined to elaborate.
LaPlante said this person’s role was to ensure the ultimate decision rested exclusively upon the criteria finalized for the two contending teams last July.
He added that federal acquisition regulations require that though this person may use analyses and reports prepared by others, the final decision “shall represent the Source Selection Authority’s best independent judgment.”
LaPlante spent a good portion of the advance briefing outlining this position and insisting upon the integrity of the process.
Politics this time
Northrop’s website to “support America’s new bomber”includes basic information about why the U.S. needs a new bomber and outlines Northrop’s credentials as the “world leader in stealth technology” and “the only company to ever develop, build, sustain and modernize a stealthy, long-range strike aircraft: the B-2.”
A large red button takes visitors to a form-letter page that can be filled in and sent online. Using the ZIP code provided by the user, the software will send the letter automatically to the appropriate members of Congress and to the leaders of the Pentagon.
“I commend the Air Force for choosing the Northrop Grumman industry team to build the nation’s new bomber,” the letter reads. “I encourage you to ensure LRS-B moves forward without delay.”
Clearly, Northrop is keenly aware of the role politics could play in a successful protest, for it was an intense political process that undid Airbus and won Boeing the $50 billion Air Force tanker contract.
When Boeing protested the initial 2008 tanker contract that went to Airbus in partnership with Northrop, it had the unwavering support of U.S. Norm Dicks, D — Bremerton, then the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee and often referred to as “Mr. Boeing.”
Congressional pressure led by Dicks forced the Air Force to change a key criterion in the contract bidding, giving less weight to additional performance capabilities beyond the minimum requirements.
With that crucial change, Northrop chose to pull out and in 2011 Boeing won the rebid competition against Airbus alone.
This time around, Boeing’s political hand is not as strong.
Airbus is a European company, so it was easier to raise political opposition than it would be when challenging a U.S. rival.
With Dicks now retired, Boeing has less clout in the House, which appropriates the budget.
And those secret selection criteria are not likely to be changeable.
Two people with indirect knowledge of the bomber competition offered widely differing reasons Wednesday for why Northrop won.
One had heard that Boeing was simply underbid.
The other, citing a well-placed source close to Boeing, said Northrop offered a key technology advantage that Boeing and its partner Lockheed Martin couldn’t match.
Either way, with the selection criteria fixed in advance and unlikely to be changed, and with the decision made by a supposedly independent official, it’s hard to see Boeing’s path to a successful protest.