updated 5/25/2004 6:43:22 PM ET 2004-05-25T22:43:22

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday delayed for at least six months a decision on an Air Force plan to acquire 100 refueling tankers from The Boeing Co.

The delay will give officials time to complete two additional studies he has ordered to evaluate the controversial deal — including an analysis of alternatives that requires a comprehensive look at other refueling options, Rumsfeld said.

The decision was based in part on recommendations made by the Defense Science Board, which submitted a report critical of the tanker deal earlier this month.

The report by the advisory panel said there is no compelling reason for the Air Force to immediately acquire 100 refueling tankers. Contrary to Air Force claims, corrosion of the aging tanker fleet is “manageable” and several options exist to refurbish the fleet, the report said.

The science board report followed another study released last month by the Pentagon’s inspector general, who concluded the Pentagon should not move forward on the $23.5 billion plan until significant changes are made.

A Boeing spokesman had no immediate comment.

Despite signs the contract was in jeopardy, Boeing has been maintaining publicly for months that it expected the deal to ultimately go forward. But the company acknowledged to regulators in a March filing that it was braced to take a $310 million charge if it was rejected.

Rumsfeld said the two new reports should be completed by November.

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