Last updated March 20, 2008 11:54 p.m. PT

Air Force says fewer planes would be needed for missions

Northrop Grumman Corp.’s aerial tanker beat rival Boeing’s plane for a $35 billion military contract in part because fewer of the aircraft would be required to meet wartime missions and it might be ready sooner, according to Air Force documents.The Air Force would require 22 fewer Northrop tankers to meet classified homeland defense and combat scenarios covering the Pacific and Southwest Asia required in the competition, according to a document that outlined the service’s selection criteria.Boeing lost the 179-plane contract Feb. 29 to Northrop and its partner, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., and protested the decision March 11. The Air Force briefing document made available to Bloomberg News indicates that although the contest was close, the Air Force decided the Northrop entry was better in some key areas such as turnaround time on refueling missions.The Air Force also determined Los Angeles-based Northrop’s plane was likely to need less development time to meet the goal of an April 2013 introduction, the document said.Both companies offered “fair and reasonable prices” and “a reasonable business arrangement,” the briefing document said. Northrop was deemed “more advantageous in mission capability” and “in key system requirements” and “program management,” the document said.The loss of the contest and appeals would end the hold Chicago-based Boeing has had on the Air Force tanker business since 1956. Boeing’s entry in the latest contest was based on its 767 commercial plane, whereas Northrop’s was based on the larger A330 made by EADS unit Airbus, based in Toulouse, France.Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale said the company was given the document with selected Northrop material redacted. Northrop spokesman Dan McClain confirmed his company also received the document with Boeing data deleted and declined further comment. Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman, also declined to comment on the documents.The documents said Boeing’s candidate had better communications capability and bested Northrop in some aerial refueling capabilities. The Boeing aircraft also was judged to have better survivability characteristics.Even so, “Northrop Grumman provides better aerial refueling efficiency,” said the slides prepared by the Air Force Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. The Air Force concluded there was more risk that Boeing’s development phase would take longer and be more expensive than Northrop’s, the slides said. That included the likelihood of a “relatively lengthy software development phase.”“Little difference exists between” Northrop’s “cost and price and the government’s probable cost and price” for the development phase, the Air Force said. In contrast, the difference between Boeing and the government’s probable costs “are not reasonably explained” for some categories.The Air Force slides, in assessing the competitor’s past performance, said there was “little confidence” in Boeing’s program management, whereas Northrop was rated “satisfactory.”Barksdale, in his e-mailed statement, said that problems Boeing had with some international tanker programs and a Navy multimission aircraft were “overly emphasized” and that the Air Force didn’t properly consider “lessons learned” by the company in resolving those issues.Among the “major discriminators” that swayed the Air Force was the Northrop model’s larger size. Boeing, in its protest to the Government Accountability Office, said that if the company had been told “the Air Force wanted a large-scale tanker, it could have offered” the bigger 777 aircraft as a base. The GAO has 100 days from the March 11 filing to decide whether the contest was fair.