For more than three months after the Air Force awarded a lucrative contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. and the European consortium EADS to build 179 aerial refueling tankers, the losing bidder, Boeing Co., has been attacking the decision in an aggressive public relations war.
Northrop Grumman has fought back, trying to match Boeing's tactics by mobilizing supporters on Capitol Hill and lobbing shots in full-page newspaper ads, statements by company executives and bluntly worded blog postings.
Noticeably absent from the war is the Air Force itself.
The Air Force has been criticized by Boeing, which argues that the service did not adequately communicate its requirements for the tanker program and ultimately chose a larger and more expensive plane than expected.
But service officials have been barred from releasing most details behind their decision to hand the $35 billion deal to the Northrop Grumman-EADS team while GAO evaluates a protest Boeing filed shortly after the Feb. 29 contract award.
GAO's much-anticipated ruling on the protest is expected to be announced today or Thursday, the deadline for concluding its 100-day review of the case. After an initial announcement, GAO is expected over the next several weeks to make public some of the details from its review of the process the service used to select the winner, which is sure to thrust the Air Force into the spotlight.
When explaining why the Air Force has kept a low public profile, a spokeswoman said the service risks disclosing proprietary information and potentially violating federal regulations and the ground rules for the GAO review.
Nonetheless, the Air Force initially had been expected to make public a redacted version of its formal answer to the Boeing protest, a move that could have shed some more light on the bidding process and the service's defense against Boeing's lines of attack.
But service officials ultimately decided not to go public with their defense or any other information before GAO completes its work.
"The Air Force stands by its process and its decision," the spokeswoman said in an e-mail. "Upon completion of the GAO review, and the close of the source selection process, the Air Force looks forward to providing detailed and thorough information in accordance with the law."
The Air Force's public silence has not been a problem for Northrop Grumman, a company spokesman said. "It appears that the Air Force has been very conservative and, I think, rightfully so in the way they handled the information due to the intense scrutiny and the misuse of some of the information that's been out there," the spokesman said.
Gordon Adams, a procurement expert who handled defense matters at OMB during the Clinton administration, observed that the public relations mentality is different in the Pentagon than in industry.
"The natural instinct in the contracting community is to reach for the press release," he said. "But not in the Air Force, not in the services."
When pressed to address the tanker contract in congressional hearings, service officials have steadfastly defended their decision, emphasizing that the selection process was open and transparent. But they have refrained from providing specific details or directly criticizing Boeing's tanker proposal.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., whose state would have benefited from a Boeing-made tanker, castigated the Air Force last week, saying the service has not provided information to her office.
"I have asked repeatedly over the last three months that Air Force leaders explain how they came to their decision," Murray said. "But I have been stonewalled again and again," she added.
On the other side of the battle, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee whose home state of Alabama would benefit from the Northrop/EADS tanker, acknowledged that the Air Force "could have gone a little further" to defend its decision publicly.
Sessions said he did not think the service has been timid.
"They don't have to sit and be unfairly accused," Sessions said. "I salute them for the times they stood up and said, 'We have worked hard on this; we were transparent on this.' "
Several analysts and defense industry sources said the Air Force has been wise to limit their public comments and largely refrain from holding news conferences and other media outreach efforts to answer Boeing attack ads.
The muted response, these sources said, is par for the course for contracts under protest and shows deference to GAO. After all, the Air Force had little to gain from engaging in a public feud that would do little, if anything, to sway the outcome of the GAO review, they reasoned.
"I'm not sure what they would gain from aggression," said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft industry analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "Defending yourself is a high priority when there is something to actually be gained from that."
What's more, Adams said, is that the Air Force did not want to go on the counter-offensive and risk harming its relationship with Boeing, one of its biggest suppliers.
"Why should they want to make the contractors angrier?" Adams said. "They've got to do business with Boeing, too."
Former Pentagon acquisition chief Jacques Gansler said he may have been more aggressive in defending the decision, if he were in the Air Force's shoes. But he said engaging Boeing would not stop the PR campaign.
"They can't tell Boeing to shut up," Gansler said. "They can't tell them not to run full-page ads every day."
This article appears in the June 21, 2008, edition of NJ Daily.