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Gates takes swipe at unfair play

WASHINGTON, June 11 (UPI) -- Underscoring continued controversy, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced dismay at attempts by congressmen to "discourage" the European aviation giant EADS from competing in the U.S. Air Force tanker program.

Gates' remarks, made to reporters in London, were a reaction to U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and chairman of a defense appropriations subcommittee, who has encouraged U.S. companies to refrain from joining forces with EADS against Boeing in the competition.

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"If they ask me, I am surely going to tell them what I think," Dicks was quoted saying in April. "I would hope that they would not partner with EADS."

Gates said this week: "We want a fair and open competition for the tanker. And frankly efforts to discourage U.S. companies from participating in the competition do not help us.

"So I was very disappointed to hear some of the comments that were made."

Such swipes as Dicks' have kept EADS from announcing the U.S. partners it found in recent weeks for fear of reprisals and threats the companies may face from U.S. lawmakers.

"We are not giving the name because we don't want to put them under pressure," Louis Gallois, EADS chief executive was quoted saying by the Financial Times.

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The bid by the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. would pitch the company's A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport in the controversial competition to replace the aging U.S. Air Force KC-135.

EADS pulled out of the air-refueling contest this year, accusing the Pentagon of revising requirements to suit the competing bid of Boeing. The $35 billion contract concerns the supply of 179 tanker planes to the Air Force.

Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS, the parent company of Airbus, had beat Boeing in a similar race two years ago. But its winning bid was annulled after government auditors found that the Air Force has skewed its judgment rules.

In 2003, similarly, the Pentagon awarded a contract to Boeing but later suspended the deal after the U.S. aerospace giant appealed the move to Congress.

The controversy over the air tanker contest has sparked a diplomatic fracas with senior European officials berating the United States for what they billed as an act of protectionism.

Proposals from each firm are due in early July to replace an aging fleet of so-called Stratotankers that date back to the 1950s.

In a setback from EADS, however, the U.S. House of Representatives issued a bill forcing the Pentagon to "factor in allegedly illegal Airbus subsidies when it decides the tanker contract," the Defense News Web site reported.

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The decision was based on a ruling by the World Trade Organization that Airbus had received "illegal subsidies" from European government, part of a long-running battle between the United States and the European Union.

In a statement, Boeing welcomed the U.S. legislation, billing it "fair" on a global scale.

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