- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A European defense contractor said Tuesday that it will make its own bid for the U.S. Air Force’s long-delayed $35 billion contract to build a fleet of new refueling jets.

The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, also known as EADS, opens a new chapter in the bitterly disputed and politically sensitive Pentagon effort to replace its fleet of KC-135 refueling tankers that date to the 1950s.

EADS is challenging Boeing Co., a U.S. company, for the right to build 179 new planes for the Air Force. EADS’ one-time American partner, Northrop Grumman Corp., dropped out earlier this year after saying the Pentagon project unfairly favored Boeing.

“When you’ve got the best, you gotta offer it,” said Ralph Crosby, chairman of the EADS North America division.

Northrop and Boeing sparred for nearly a decade over the contract, which is expected to be the first of several to replace the tanker fleet. Attempts to replace the fleet have failed repeatedly for reasons ranging from bungling by the Pentagon to the criminal conviction of a top Defense Department official.

The Air Force formally reopened the bidding earlier this year. Boeing said it would try again, but Northrop decided not to make an offer. Northrop has complained that the Air Force’s guidelines for the plane were slanted toward Boeing’s smaller plane.

That has sparked claims of protectionism from European leaders who say the Pentagon is giving an unfair competitive advantage to Boeing, based in Chicago. Boeing, with aircraft manufacturing facilities in Washington state and Kansas, has strong support in Congress.

Faced with the prospect of awarding a contact with no competition, the Pentagon agreed to extend a deadline to give EADS more time to bid.

EADS plans to offer a military version of its A330 passenger jet made by Airbus, a subsidiary. Militaries such as the Royal Australian Air Force have already ordered versions of the plane.

The company said it will build a new manufacturing plant in Mobile, Ala. if it wins the contract.

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