By Marina Malenic

A small extension to a May 10 deadline for bids on the Air Force’s aerial refueling tanker replacement program will not affect the operational readiness of its aging fleet, the service’s senior uniformed official said yesterday.

“A modest extension will not impact readiness,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.

Schwartz was speaking at an event sponsored by the Air Force Association.

The Defense Department announced last week that it is considering extending the deadline in order to allow EADS North America to bid for the contract as a prime contractor without a U.S. company as a partner. The company’s former U.S. industry partner from the last tanker competition, Northrop Grumman [NOC], announced the previous week that it would not bid for the work, alleging that the Pentagon’s revised solicitation favors rival Boeing‘s [BA] smaller airplane.

Schwartz defended the new plan.

“I am personally comfortable that the competition is fundamentally driven by sound and irreducible customer requirements in an equitable and open process,” he said.

Pentagon officials remain in talks with EADS, but Schwartz gave no indication when the issue would be resolved.

Northrop Grumman-EADS won a contract to build 179 tankers based on the Airbus A330 for the Air Force in February 2008. The contract was canceled when U.S. auditors upheld a Boeing protest tied to Air Force errors in evaluating bids.