WASHINGTON — A high-ranking Air Force official on Wednesday pressed the Pentagon to expedite the award of a disputed $35 billion contract for new aerial refueling tankers so the service can retire Eisenhower-era aircraft.

Gen. Arthur Lichte, who runs Air Mobility Command, told reporters that either aircraft offered by Boeing Co. or Northrop Grumman Corp. were capable of the mission, but urged a quick decision to avoid placing further strain on the service's already aging aircraft.

"I don't care which tanker wins," said Lichte said. "I just need a new tanker."

The four-star general said if the program is delayed by another year or more, the Air Force will be forced to fly some its current fleet past 2040, which would make those planes at least 80 years old.

A Pentagon spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The aircraft are used to refuel combat and other support planes in flight and have helped widen the range of the U.S. military's reach. The planes have been used in operations in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Boeing in February lost the deal to replace 179 aerial refueling tankers to Northrop and its partner Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. The Chicago-based aerospace manufacturer filed a protest in March.

The competition was reopened after government auditors found "significant errors" in the Air Force's decision. The revamped contest — overseen by Pentagon acquisition chief John Young — is focused on eight areas where the Government Accountability Office found problems.

The Pentagon was expected to release its final request for bids last week, already late for a self-imposed deadline of Aug .15 that continues to slip.

Under the Pentagon's current plan, both Boeing and Northrop were expected to respond to the bids request by Oct. 1, with a final contract award by the end of the year. But both of those deadlines also are likely to be missed.

Boeing estimates the tanker contract would support 44,000 new and existing jobs with more than 300 U.S. suppliers. The company would perform much of the work in Everett, Wash., and Wichita, Kan.

Northrop has said its tanker would support four new factories and 48,000 jobs with 230 U.S. suppliers, including more than 1,500 new positions in Mobile, Ala., where the tanker would be assembled.

Northrop — which has 1,228 Utah employees — has said 220 jobs would be added in Utah with the contract, both in Northrop's operations and with four supplier companies.

Boeing has 739 employees and 236 suppliers and vendors in Utah.

Boeing has threatened to exit the competition if it does not receive an additional four months from the Pentagon to assemble its offer. The company also has said it would consider protesting the final request for bids.

Los Angeles-based Northrop has repeatedly indicated that a delay in the program would only benefit Boeing, while raising costs for the taxpayer and prolonging delivery of a new tanker for the military.

"How are we going to solve this?" asked Lichte. "I just don't understand at some point how you stop and say, 'OK, this company wins, this company loses."'


Contributing: Deseret News.