With all the over-heated rhetoric surrounding the Air Force decision to go with Northrop and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) refueling tanker proposal rather than Boeing's, few have asked: Will Congress put pressure on its own investigations arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), to deliver an outcome favorable for Boeing at the expense of the GAO's independence? This question is important -- today Boeing announced that it will protest the Air Force's decision at the GAO.
Frankly, according to everything we've heard so far, and there may be things we don't know, it seems that the Northrop-EADS won in a blow out over Boeing and that the Air Force ran the competition fairly and transparently. Boeing claims that the Air Force led it astray by dissuading it from proposing a larger refueling tanker in its bid, but details so far are sparse on this point. We're curious about them and will keep an open mind. Presumably, this and other possible objections to how the Boeing bid was evaluated by the Air Force will be part of its protest to the GAO -- these may have merit, but these issues are ones for the GAO's legal professionals to decide without outside pressure.
The bid protest function was deliberately placed by Congress in the GAO's hands to minimize the potential of interference by executive branch agencies; indeed, it would be a tragic irony if Congress were to undermine the integrity and objectivity of its own creation in the case of the tanker contract.
UPDATE: The still-vague outlines of Boeing's protest, via the Wall Street Journal (paid subcription req'd):
Boeing declined last night to provide specific details about its planned protest. However, it hinted at some of its concerns yesterday afternoon in an update it released prior to the decision to pursue an appeal.
Citing its Friday briefing with the Air Force, Boeing said it believes it fared well under the Air Force's five main criteria to evaluate bids. For example, Boeing said it received a top rating for its aircraft's "mission capability," the No. 1 factor, and said it scored very similarly in other areas to the Northrop offering. The company said subjective assessments and changes to an important analytical model contributed to the loss.
"We have serious concerns over inconsistency in requirements, cost factors and treatment of our commercial data," said Mark McGraw, the head of Boeing's tanker effort, in the statement.
In particular, Boeing said the Air Force had sought in-depth cost information on the company's modified 767 tanker offering, which is the product of work by the company's commercial and military divisions. This posed a challenge as the level of detail needed for the government's cost analysis was more than what the commercial side could offer. Boeing said the Air Force was satisfied with the data, though they were less extensive than the government expects under military contracting.
Boeing also said the Air Force made changes in its model that allowed a bigger plane to stay in the competition.
Northrop, based in Los Angeles, countered that its offering won because of its cost, past performance on other contracts, the airplane's capabilities beyond refueling and how the plane fared using a complex model assessing the plane's performance on military missions. The debriefing was "rigorous and deliberative," Northrop said. Air Force officials walked Northrop executives through their proposal yesterday to explain why it won.
-- Nick Schwellenbach