GAO to Air Force: 'Try Again'
The Air Force has struggled mightily for years to build its KC-X tanker airplane. Its first attempt to procure the plane through a complicated leasing deal met a spectacularly bloody end, largely at the hands of Sen. John McCain and the Senate Armed Services Committee. Now, its second attempt has been derailed by the Government Accountability Office, which sustained Boeing's protest of an Air Force decision to award the contract to a joint venture of Northrop and EADS.
According to today's Wall Street Journal:
The GAO upheld the majority of Boeing's most serious objections. The agency said the Air Force "made a number of significant errors that could have affected the outcome of what was a close competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman." It said the Air Force should seek revised proposals and pick a new winner.
Although the GAO can't force the Air Force to reopen bidding, its report is likely to have that result. The decision in favor of Northrop was already under scrutiny because the two top Air Force leaders were fired earlier this month by Defense Secretary Robert Gates over unrelated security gaffes. Those leaders had defended the Northrop choice....
The Air Force said it went to unprecedented lengths to make this competition as fair and transparent as possible. It was also unusually rigorous, drawing in weapons-buying experts from the Navy and Army, as well as senior Defense Department acquisitions officials to make sure the process could withstand a legal or procedural challenge.
During the evaluation, the Air Force had 10 face-to-face meetings with the companies and approximately 60 telephone discussions to make sure that both sides were clear on how their proposals stacked up against the government's requirements.
The GAO said it made no determination on whose aircraft was better, and focused on how the Air Force ran the competition. The GAO found seven overall problems with how the Air Force picked the Northrop bid, siding with Boeing on most of the key points.
Investigators found that the Air Force essentially ignored its own evaluation criteria in weighing the two proposals. The report also found that the service erred when it gave Northrop extra credit for having a larger aircraft that could carry more fuel, saying the decision violated the bid document's provision that "no consideration will be provided for exceeding" key performance parameters.
There are serious legal issues that need to be resolved here. There are also a number of political issues, including the whole range of questions involving foreign vs. domestic procurements in the defense arena. And there are strategic questions, like what kind of Air Force we really want and how many tankers it will take to outfit that force.
This last question is most important. The Air Force is facing a struggle for relevance in an age dominated by ground warfare and counterinsurgency. Why do we need an Air Force? And what do we want it to do? What should its roles and missions be in the 21st century? The answers to these questions should inform decisions about how many aircraft the Air Force needs, and of what type. I'm not satisfied that we've thought through these questions and answered them well.
Even though I'm a unrepentant knuckle-dragging, ground-pounding former Army officer, I believe the Air Force has an incredibly important role to play in the wars of today and tomorrow. I break this down into five broad functional areas: (1) global power projection; (2) global situational awareness; (3) combat operations such as fighter and bomber missions; (4) transportation and logistics support; and (5) strategic nuclear capabilities.
Each one of these areas is relevant in the age we live in -- particularly power projection and situational awareness. Some people think the Air Force's best contribution to counterinsurgency is its bomber capability. I disagree. The Air Force contributes by providing the ability to project ground troops and other assets anywhere in the world, and then integrate the panoply of American communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems so that those ground-pounders can have situational awareness.
The KC-X tanker plays a key role in all this. Without aerial refueling capability, global-power projection is a fantasy. Similarly, without this capability, the Air Force can't keep its surveillance and communications platforms flying. The current KC-10 and KC-135 fleet is aging and in dire need of replacement. I hope the Pentagon can get this critical program moving, and quickly.
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