When the Air Force responded to bids for a $35 billion aerial tanker project to two major defense contractors last month, it didn’t realize it somehow had reversed the intended responses. The result was both Boeing and EADS North America received information about the others bids.

While originally cited as a “clerical error”, the inadvertent data mix up delayed the award of the long-awaited project until early next year.

“The department does believe that it was a ‘clerical’ error,” said Colonel David Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman, told Bloomberg. “We are certainly concerned with it, and the Air Force is looking into it, but we don’t believe there will be a significant impact.”

Defense News sources said each firm received the Integrated Fleet Aerial Refueling Assessments (IFARA) from the rival company. The IFARA outlines aerial tanker operations in different scenarios to determine the number of needed tankers. It is used by the Air Force to assess risk from each bid.

While award of the contract has been delayed, some analysts believe the contest may have been compromised. Both companies have submitted their bids and answered hundreds of detailed questions from the Air Force. It is believed that the gaffe was during the question and answer period.

“If competitive evaluations were sent to the wrong companies, then it seriously impairs the fairness of the acquisition process and would be the basis for a future protest,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, to Defense News. “This is the kind of error that can result in the wrong team winning.”

Other speculations are that the error could lead to both bidders creating the aircraft. However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has opposed a split buy, due primarily because of the added expense of using two aircraft types.

The project, which was supposed to have been awarded by Dec. 20, is the Air Force’s highest acquisition priority for nearly a decade.

In September, 2009, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates restored the Air Force’s ability to manage the new competition for tankers after a similar mishap in 2008 led to him removing the authority. In 2008, the Air Force awarded a 179-plane deal to EADS’ North American unit teamed with Northrop Grumman Corp, but then later awarded the contract to Boeing. The switch was due to appeals after it was found the Air Force made a series of mistakes in judging the rival bids.

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Chandler Harris is a freelance business and technology writer located in Silicon Valley. He has written for numerous publications including Entrepreneur, InformationWeek, San Jose Magazine, Government Technology, Public CIO, AllBusiness.com, U.S. Banker, Digital Communities Magazine, Converge Magazine, Surfer's Journal, Adventure Sports Magazine, ClearanceJobs.com, and the San Jose Business Journal. Chandler is also engaged in helping companies further their content marketing needs through content strategy, optimization and creation, as well as blogging and social media platforms. When he's not writing, Chandler enjoys his beach haunt of Santa Cruz where he rides roller coasters with his son, surfs and bikes across mountain ranges.