Air Force Secretary: Tanker contract "a missed opportunity"

WASHINGTON (AP) - Acting Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said Monday the latest failed attempt to award a $35 billion aerial refueling plane contract was "a missed opportunity" that leaves the military with an unclear path on how to replace its aging fleet of tankers.

Speaking at the Air Force Association's annual conference, Donley said a decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to postpone the latest round of bidding on the contract means the service "needs a new approach" when it tries again next year to pick a defense contractor to build 179 new planes.

Gates last week canceled bidding between Boeing and Northrop Grumman, calling for a "cooling off" period between the bitter rivals.

It was the latest delay in seven years of trying to find a contractor to build the jets.

The Air Force says there is a pressing need for the planes since some of the service's current tankers are nearly 50 years old.

General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters Monday that awarding a new contract could take anywhere from eight months to four years.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)