Analysts unsure if Northrop Grumman bluffing over Air Force tanker deal

Is it a bluff?

That’s the $40 billion question that echoed Wednesday from Washington state to Washington, D.C. and from the Gulf Coast to Wall Street on news that Northrop Grumman Corp. may opt out of the U.S. Air Force tanker competition.

Los Angeles-based Northrop notified the Department of Defense on Tuesday that it would not compete for the tanker contract unless changes are made to the bidding criteria.

The company, which is proposing to assemble its tankers in Mobile, said in a letter to the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer that the contest’s ground rules are stacked in favor the smaller, cheaper aircraft being offered by rival Boeing Co.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates showed no inclination to negotiate Wednesday.