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Extended Interview: Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, discusses her objections to the Air Force giving Nothrop Grumman the contract for new refueling airplanes, instead of Boeing.

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    This process for this tanker was a new way of approaching things, was it not?


    The Air Force has been telling us for a number of years that they need to replace an aging tanker workforce, that the planes were old, they're costing us a lot of money, the maintenance is very high, and they need to be replaced. They told us that the small-medium sized air refueling tankers were absolutely critical, not just to the Air Force but to the Marines, the Army, National Guard, Coast Guard, everyone refuels using these tankers.

    The reason the tankers are so important is they literally allow America to control the skies and to protect us, whether it's war time or peace time, and they consistently have told us throughout the time that they need a mid-sized refueling tanker because it can land on air spaces and airstrips that are in third-world countries, it can deploy a number of times and refuel a number of different sized planes that fly at different speeds and have a number of them up in the air at the same time so they could keep a large number of aircraft up in the air in theater.

    So it was a shock to all of us when the contract came through and we bought a huge plane that can't land on numerous airstrips, that isn't very agile, that can only fill a smaller number of our airplanes that are up in the air and has other problems when it comes to other aspects of the military.

    So that alone was a real shock, but I think second to that was the shock I heard at home, and I actually I think we're hearing across the country that we're giving away $40 billion for another company controlled by other countries to build the backbone of our military, that we are not going to rely on American workers, American ingenuity. Americans know how to protect our men and women who are in those planes. And even worse, 10 years from now, we'll have lost the engineering machinist capability to build those planes.


    You thought Boeing was almost a shoe-in for this contract. You appraised the process as recently as last fall?


    Sure, because we had been consistently told by the Air Force, at the top levels, up to Secretary (Michael) Wynne, they wanted a medium-sized plane that was agile, that could land on airstrips and could work for all the military. The Boeing plane that they submitted was that kind of tanker. Secretary Wynne himself said we wanted a medium-sized plane, not a tanker that tanks. That's exactly what Secretary Wynne said. So when, all of a sudden, the bids were opened and they tell us it's going to be a huge tanker that doesn't meet those qualifications that's a real surprise to us.


    Did you get a feeling before the announcement that Northrop was getting ahead?


    Well, what we had been told was that there was considerable pressure from members of Congress to make sure that we had a competitive bid. The Air Force worked very hard to make sure that there wasn't just one bidder. Harder and harder in today's world when there's fewer airplane manufacturers. But they had to do that because there was pressure from Congress to have a competitive bid.

    What we were told probably a year or so ago was that in order to have that second bid, to have Airbus and EADS at the table, they needed to change the contract to allow larger plane into it, not to award a larger plane, but to allow a company that builds larger planes, but never did the Air Force say we want a bigger plane. They still were saying we want a medium sized tanker that is agile that meets our military needs.


    What role do you think if any (Arizona Republican) Sen. (John) McCain had here?


    Well I think there was tremendous pressure from Senator McCain to make sure we had a competitive bid, and again I don't have a problem with a competitive bid. I do have a problem with changing the way that the bids are evaluated to a point where the Air Force now has a plane they did not want, they're now having to defend it because they put this out there, but when you talk to military, the military, they need an agile tanker that can land in multiple airstrips around the world, soft landings that can park in our current maintenance facilities, and we didn't get that.

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