WASHINGTON (AP) -- With thousands of jobs at stake, Alabama leaders expressed frustration Wednesday over the Pentagon's decision to again delay its Air Force tanker bidding, calling the move embarrassing and unacceptable.
"I am, frankly, embarrassed for the DoD leadership," said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile. "They have an urgent military need yet are simply giving up efforts to address that need ... We now have a 50-year-old aircraft fleet with no viable plans to replace it."
The massive contract -- worth $35 billion initially and possibly triple that amount in future years -- has drawn close scrutiny from Congress and the defense industry. Boeing Co. has competed for the work against an international team that includes Northrop Grumman Corp. and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., the parent of Airbus.
The Northrop team would assemble its planes at Mobile's Brookley Field Industrial Complex, creating an estimated 1,500 jobs.
After years of delays, the Air Force awarded the contract to the Northrop team in February, prompting celebrations in Alabama. But the Pentagon reopened the competition in July after a protest by Boeing was upheld by government auditors who ruled that the bidding process favored the Northrop team.
At the time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon would focus on only a handful of contested points and finish the procurement within six months.
But Gates said Wednesday that schedule no longer seemed possible given the complexity of the project and the "highly charged" feuding among the rival parties.
Gov. Bob Riley pointed to Gates' remark in April that "it would be a real shame" if the purchase were delayed again because the existing tankers were built in the 1950s.
"The Air Force has been trying for six years now to replace its aging fleet of tankers," Riley said. "I can't understand why anyone would make this decision. At some point, we have to say we are going to put our warfighters first -- not the suppliers, not politics."