Northrop Grumman and Airbus parent company European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co. have won a contract which could be worth up to $40 billion to build air refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force.

Los Angeles-based Northrop and EADS will build up to 179 tankers based on the Airbus A330 commercial jetliner. The first planes are expected to take flight in 2013.

Northrop Grumman clearly provided the best value to the government, said Air Force acquisitions official Sue Payton during a news conference today.

She cited the proposed plane's capabilities and cost as factors in the choice. The plane, which replaces the aging KC-135 model tankers, will be used to refuel Air Force jets in mid-air, and haul cargo.

The move comes as a blow to EADS rival Boeing Co. based in Chicago. It had been highly favored to win the contract.

Boeing said in a statement it was very disappointed. The company said it will request a debrief from the Air Force, review the details behind the award and make a decision concerning our possible options.