Lawmakers slammed the Air Force on Thursday for the latest in a series of gaffes in the service’s decade-long quest to acquire a new aerial refueling tanker.

In November, Air Force officials in charge of handling proposals for the KC-X tanker mistakenly sent rival companies data that contained information regarding the bids of their competitors.

Boeing and the North American branch of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. are vying for the $35 billion contract to build 179 new tankers, with a final decision on the winner expected next month.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Air Force and Pentagon officials said no proprietary information was believed to have been disclosed due to the mix-up, and that neither company has filed a protest.

Still, it was another embarrassment in the 10-year effort to replace the aging KC-135 Stratotanker, which provides in-air refueling for American airpower.

“This is not the finest moment for the Air Force,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Thursday.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Wendy M. Masiello of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition told the committee that Boeing did not open the disc it received containing EADS data, but that EADS employees inadvertently viewed the Boeing data.

The information viewed by EADS employees consisted of one page of a spreadsheet containing data the Air Force will use in deciding who wins the tanker contract.

Boeing was given comparable data after the fact to level the playing field, she said, adding that she was not privy to any KC-X specifics.

In a statement to the committee, EADS North America CEO Sean O’Keefe said the data received was opened on a company computer for about 15 seconds before protocols were taken to shut it down and get it back to the Air Force.

“Thank goodness it wasn’t highly classified information,” said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.

The hearing soon moved into the sordid history of contracting the new tanker.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., characterized the past 10 years as “this long odyssey and saga of mismanagement.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., questioned why the Air Force was even considering awarding the contract to EADS, the parent company of Airbus that receives subsidies from European governments.

“We’re about to spend $35 billion of taxpayer money here,” Graham said. “It’s hard enough for American companies to compete already.”

The stakes are high in the tanker saga.

The Air Force’s current tanker, 1950s-era KC-135, is needed more than ever to refuel other aircraft mid-flight, but its age has brought about an explosion in maintenance costs and uneasy questions about how long it will be able to fly.

The new tanker also means new jobs. Winning the contract will mean more work for Boeing factories in Washington state and Kansas.

EADS North America has said winning the contract would create or support 48,000 American jobs.

The process of getting a company to build a new tanker has been repeatedly hijacked over the past 10 years, even as the KC-135s groaned under the high tempo of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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