Both companies have a lot at stake, especially since the contract for the planes, which are essentially flying gas cans, could later be extended to $100 billion even if military spending falls. But the competition also includes thousands of high-paying jobs, and whether they will end up at Boeing’s plants in Washington State and Kansas or in Alabama, where EADS would build a factory if it won.
No matter which company the Pentagon taps, “Congress might just automatically take up arms,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. “The last thing you want in this economic environment is to have your constituents back home think that you aren’t doing all you can to bring jobs to your district.”
Boeing’s supporters acknowledge that they are worried. And if the Air Force picks EADS, that could revive concerns in Congress about putting a major military contract in the hands of a foreign company, though EADS says its North American subsidiary would eventually assemble much of each plane in Mobile.
Lawmakers who support Boeing contend that the Pentagon’s formula for judging the bids favors the larger European plane over Boeing’s smaller one. They also complain that EADS, which is partly owned by European nations, could use subsidies to underbid Boeing even though the EADS plane would normally cost at least 10 to 15 percent more to build.
“I think the Air Force has bent over backwards not only to get EADS to bid, but to give it an advantage,” Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington State, said Wednesday in an interview.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on Wednesday. They have said they steered the bidding “straight down the middle” to get the best deal for the military and to push forward on a project that began in 2001. EADS and its supporters dismiss Boeing’s concerns, saying the rules of the contest have been clear for more than a year and their plane is more modern.
“It is my hope that the Air Force will soon put thousands of Alabamians to work building the clearly superior aircraft our war-fighters deserve,” Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Both companies said they had adjusted their bids in submitting their “best and final” offers on Feb. 10. When reporters asked last week how much EADS had lowered its price, Ralph D. Crosby Jr., the chairman of its North American unit, quipped: “Just enough to win.”
EADS also has substantial political backing, particularly among Republican lawmakers. So the fight could also offer another test of how the new Republican majority in the House will handle spending and job issues. And some analysts believe that Congress could still order the Pentagon to split the purchase between the two companies.
The bidding marks the third attempt by the Air Force to start replacing hundreds of aging tankers, which date back to the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. They transfer fuel in flight to fighters, bombers and cargo planes.
Even some military officials note sardonically that the Allies won World War II in half the time it has taken the procurement process to get to this point.