The U.S. Defense Department will wait until the next administration to award a disputed $35 billion contract to build a new fleet of aerial refueling tankers.
Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat, says the Pentagon has canceled the latest round of bidding between Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. for the 179 planes, and now plans to hold a new competition next year.
Northrop and its partner, European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., the Airbus parent company, won the contract earlier this year, but the competition was reopened after the Government Accountability Office found fault with the decision.
The aerial refueling procedure allows the receiving aircraft to remain airborne longer and, more important, to extend its range and therefore those of its weapons or its deployment radius. A series of air refuelings can give range limited only by crew fatigue and engineering factors such as engine oil consumption.
Because the receiver aircraft can be topped up with extra fuel in the air, air refueling can allow a take-off with a greater payload which could be weapons, cargo or personnel: the maximum take-off weight is maintained by balancing the larger payload with carriage of less fuel. Alternatively, a shorter take-off roll can be achieved because take-off can be at a lighter weight before refueling once airborne (as with the US SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft).
Usually, the aircraft providing the fuel is specially designed for the task, although refueling pods can be fitted to existing aircraft designs if the "probe and drogue" system is to be used. The cost of the refueling equipment on both tanker and receiver aircraft and the specialized aircraft handling of the aircraft to be refueled (very close "line astern" formation flying) has resulted in the activity only being used in military operations. There is no known regular civilian in-flight refueling activity. In large-scale military operations, air refueling is extensively used. For instance, in the 1991 conflict with Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait and the 2003 war against Iraq, all coalition air sorties were air-refueled except for a few short-range ground attack sorties in the Kuwait area.