EDITORIAL: Time to update the tanker fleet

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The United States military is the most powerful in the world in large part because it is the most lavishly funded and technologically advanced. So it’s odd that, when American fighters built in the last few years are refueled in the air, they depend on tanker aircraft designed before Elvis Presley’s first album hit the charts.

With AARP-eligible hardware in the sky, you might expect the Pentagon to hurry replacement of the planes. Not so. After nearly a decade of mismanagement, the Department of Defense remains committed to a counter-urgency strategy.

The latest Pentagon mistake sure to delay procurement is Defense’s strange refusal to treat the two main bidders the same on an issue of basic procedural fairness. By sharing the pricing data of bidder Northrop Grumman with Boeing, but not sharing Boeing’s equivalent data with Northrop, the Pentagon ensures more legal challenges down the road that will hobble the program.

The air tanker contract has been controversial since 2001. The Pentagon’s first attempt to give Boeing a lease deal was jettisoned in a corruption scandal that left some in jail. Northrop Grumman and a European partner, the parent of Airbus, won the next round. But when the Government Accountability Office upheld a few minor counts in Boeing’s protest of the award, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates decided to rebid the whole contract yet again.

Now that the 179-plane, $40 billion contract for air-refueling tankers is open again, the contract once again teeters on the edge of controversy. It was during Boeing’s appeal that the Pentagon shared Northrop’s privileged “pricing data” with Boeing. But late last month it refused to do the same for Northrop.

Northrop has a strong case, but that simply doesn’t matter. If the Pentagon does not share the data in both directions, the Defense Department invites needless legal challenges and delays. Even though Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions’ legislative effort this week to force the Pentagon to play fairwas derailed, Mr. Gates should still make the smart move.

No matter what happens, a contract award will be mired in conflict. Local political interests in Alabama pull for Northrop because the plane will be assembled there. Boeing has its geographic supporters. To complete the picture, Airbus is the subject of a preliminary World Trade Organization ruling that the European company has received illegal government subsidies that have hurt Boeing.

When the Defense Department makes its decision, there may still be a fight on multiple fronts - political, legal and international. Mr. Gates’ obligation is to make sure the decision is bulletproof and, at last, final. That means taking every possible step to protect the integrity of the process. If he fails again, the Air Force pilots forced to man museum-quality flying machines may not even know who Elvis was.

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