In another twist to the ongoing saga to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of aerial refueling tankers, United Aircraft Corp. of Russia is planning to bid on the $40 billion contract, according to a person familiar with its plans.
United Aircraft, an aerospace consortium owned by the Russian government, will seek to offer a tanker version of its Ilyushin Il-96 wide-body jetliner, dubbed the Il-98, this person said. The planes would be largely built in Russia, and assembled in the U.S., this person says. United Aircraft will partner with a "small U.S. defense contractor," which will be renamed United Aircraft Corp. America Inc., this person said, declining to name that contractor.
"UAC will publicly announce by Monday morning the signing of the joint venture agreement for the first of what is hoped to be many opportunities in the U.S.," says John Kirkland, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing UAC.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said, "the Department of Defense remains committed to a fair and open competition and welcomes proposals from all qualified offerors."
The Air Force's aerial tanker replacement program has been tangled in controversy since 2002, when the Pentagon planned to lease a fleet of new tankers from Boeing Co. That plan was revoked and in 2008, Northrop Grumman Corp. and its European partner, the European Aerospace Defence & Space Co., were awarded a contract to build the fleet using the Airbus A330 jetliner. Boeing successfully protested that award and the Pentagon restarted the process yet again last year.
On March 8, Northrop Grumman Corp. dropped out of the contest to bid for the contract, saying the latest requirements favored Boeing's smaller 767 entrant.
On Friday, EADS said it was seeking a three-month extension of the May 10 bidding deadline as it considered submitting a bid on its own. However, EADS has always faced pressure because it is a European firm bidding for one of the most costly U.S. defense contracts.
A bid from a Russian firm would likely face even harsher scrutiny and criticism from lawmakers. In addition, the Russian plane has never been considered a commercial success.
Only 17 Il-96 are currently in passenger service, and the plane has largely failed to find traction outside of Russia and its major trading partners as a long-range wide-body jet since it was introduced in 1993. Last August, citing lack of orders Russia canceled production of the passenger version of the Il-96.
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