WASHINGTON — Days after Boeing lodged a protest against the U.S. Air Force's pick of L3 Technologies as the systems integrator on the Compass Call recapitalization program, the service's uniformed head of acquisition defended the decision.

Rather than buying a brand-new weapon system to replace the EC-130H Compass Call fleet, the Air Force chose to "rehost" the existing electronic warfare and mission systems on a new airframe. L3 was selected to integrate that technology on an aircraft of its choosing. Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the military deputy of the Air Force's acquisition office, said the service decided to sole source the systems integration contract to L3 because it was the most cost-effective and timely option.

"L3 has played that role as the systems integrator as we have modernized these aircraft for the last 15 years. They are the ones that are very familiar with the mission equipment that is on there," he told lawmakers May 25. "That mission equipment is highly classified to be able to execute the electronic warfare mission that we ask that platform to do. They have all the tooling, they have all the existing knowledge, and they have the modeling and all the information to do that work."

Bunch added that the majority of the program is nondevelopmental and that L3 would be able to leverage its knowledge of the equipment to complete the Compass Call cross-deck on a short timeline.

Boeing’s protest, filed May 19, throws another wrench into the program, which has already been delayed as the result of an earlier protest by Bombardier that was rejected. News of the Boeing protest was first reported by Defense Oneon Wednesday night.

Boeing maintains the Air Force’s current acquisition strategy is unfair.

"The Air Force’s approach is inconsistent with Congress’s direction in the 2017 [National Defense Authorization Act] and seems to ignore inherent and obvious conflicts of interest," the company’s spokeswoman Caroline Hutcheson said in a statement. "We believe that the U.S. Air Force and taxpayer would be best served by a fair and open competition, and that the Air Force can still meet its stated timeline of replacing the aging fleet of EC-130Hs within 10 years."

L3 will not be able to move forward on the EC-130H cross-deck — including making an airframe selection — until the Government Accountability Office makes a ruling. The GAO has three months to weigh in.

Not only does Boeing believe it was qualified for the systems integrator position; it has specific concerns about L3’s responsibility for choosing the airframe, a company official told Defense News. L3 has repeatedly partnered with Gulfstream to modify the G550 business jet for military use, one example being its work with Northrop Grumman and Gulfstream on the JSTARS recap program.

Given the Air Force’s own interest in the G550 for the Compass Call airframe, charted hereby Defense One, L3’s selection of the Gulfstream jet could be seen as a forgone conclusion, the Boeing official said.

At the hearing Thursday, Bunch disputed criticisms that the Air Force was not taking enough of an oversight role in the program.

"We are not stepping out of this and just watching this process play out," he said. "We will thoroughly review their aircraft selection decision to ensure that it was comprehensive, impartial and compliant with all the applicable statutes and regulations."

The outcome of the protest has implications far beyond the EC-130H cross-deck program. Boeing has advocated the purchase of militarized 737 airliners to replace JSTARS, Compass Call, E-3 AWACS and all versions of the RC-135. The company argues that having a common fleet would save the Air Force money and reduce the logistics burden.

If Gulfstream succeeds in becoming the Compass Call airframe, and then Northrop, Gulfstream and L3 win the JSTARS competition later this year, it could allow those companies to usurp Boeing’s strategy.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.