The GAO announced yesterday that it had decided to sustain Boeing’s protest of the Air Force’s selection of Northrop Grumman (who included the European company Airbus on its team) over Boeing for the $40 billion aerial tanker contract – a contract that could ultimately be worth $100 billion.  Considering the GAO’s history of denying most of the protests that come before it, today’s outcome is likely a surprise to the many who expected the Office to stand behind the Air Force’s source selection.  The much-discussed dispute has been waging since March 11, 2008 when Boeing filed its protest. Prior to this award, Boeing had been the Air Force’s only supplier of this type of aircraft for fifty years.   The actual sixty-nine page decision was filed under a protective order and has not yet been released. A public version will be made available once all interested parties review it and identify all sensitive information that must remain confidential.

The GAO reached its decision after extensively reviewing voluminous documents produced by the Air Force and hearing testimony from Air Force witnesses.  In its press release today, the GAO made it clear that it did not consider the merits of either company’s proposal and that it examined only whether the Air Force complied with the standards established in the statutory and regulatory schemes governing the federal procurement process. “Our decision should not be read to reflect a view as to the merits of the firms’ respective aircraft. Judgments about which offeror will most successfully meet the governmental needs are largely reserved for the procuring agencies…”   In their evaluation they concluded that the Air Force made “significant errors that could have affected the outcome of what was a close competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman.”  Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) commented that “I cannot believe that in the most highly scrutinized procurement in the history of the United States, the GAO found so many errors.”

The GAO sustained Boeing’s protest for seven specific reasons, including: failure to review the proposals in lights of the solicitation criteria; violating the evaluation provisions of the solicitation, specifically the provision that, “no consideration will be provided for exceeding [key performance parameter] objectives; failure to demonstrate that the Air Force’s determination that Northrop Grumman’s tanker could refuel all current tanker-compatible receiver aircraft in accordance with current Air Force procedures, as required by the solicitation”; conducting misleading discussions with Boeing; “administrative oversight” in making an award despite “clear exception to a material solicitation requirement” in one of the requirements; unreasonable evaluation of military construction costs in “calculating the offerors’ most probably life cycle costs for their proposed aircraft,” an evaluation that if done properly would have resulted in Boeing having the lowest probable life cycle cost; and the improper increase of Boeing’s estimated non-recurring engineering costs in calculating, as well as the improper use of a simulation model in determining those costs. 

The Office recommended that the Air Force “reopen discussions with the offerors, obtain revised proposals, re-evaluate the revised proposals, and make a new source selection decision, consistent with our decision.” It also recommended that the Air Force amend its solicitation if it does not “adequately state its needs” before conducting further discussions with the companies.  Additionally, if the Air Force chooses to award the contract to Boeing, the GAO recommends that it terminate the contract with Northrop Grumman, reimburse Boeing’s protest costs, including attorneys’ fees. By law, the Air Force has sixty days to inform the GAO of its response.   As Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Economic Waste put it, “Air Force Officials didn’t miss it by a little, they apparently missed it by a mile.”