US defense secretary enters air tanker controversy

WASHINGTON, June 25, 2008 (AFP) – US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was scheduled to meet Wednesday with officials in charge of Pentagon and Air Force purchases to discuss the controversial 35-billion-dollar refueling tanker deal. On June 18 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, backed a protest by aerospace giant Boeing over a huge aerial refueling tanker contract awarded to rival Northrop Grumman, and recommended the US Air Force review the deal.

The decision could wrest the contract from Northrop Grumman and its European partner EADS in a battle fraught with protectionist overtones.

The recommendations of the powerful congressional investigative arm, although non-binding, are usually heeded.

The new refueling planes are to replace the Air Force’s fleet of aging tankers made by Boeing, which had been the sole supplier of air refueling planes to the US military.

“It will be the first time he (Gates) has had a chance to hear from them about the GAO’s recommendations, as well as the preliminary analysis that’s been done within the department on how those recommendations would potentially impact the Air Force’s February decision to award the new tanker contract to Northr