WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force top general said the cancellation of a contract for new light attack aircraft for Afghanistan was an “embarrassment” and vowed to quickly renew the contest.
“There’s no way to put a happy face on this,” Gen. Norton Schwartz told reporters on Feb. 29.
He said the Air Force would move “quickly” to relaunch the contest for 20 light support planes for the Afghan military as funds for the program will expire at the end of fiscal year 2013.
“We will work with all dispatch,” he said.
The Air Force on Tuesday abruptly cancelled the $355 million contract after awarding the project to the U.S. firm Sierra Nevada Corp. and Brazil’s aerospace manufacturer Embraer, saying it would open an investigation after a legal challenge from rival American aerospace firm Hawker Beechcraft Corp.
The move comes as a damaging setback for the Air Force, which has tried to reform its weapons-buying practices after a drawn-out competition for a new aerial refueling tanker that was plagued by scandal and controversy.
Schwartz said it would be “a profound disappointment” if facts showed that the Air Force had botched the contract, and expressed regret that the cancellation would delay the delivery of an aircraft vital to Afghanistan’s military.
“That is one of the things I’m truly sad about — not withstanding the embarrassment of this to us as an Air Force —it’s the fact that we’re letting our teammates down here,” he said.
The four-star general warned of drastic disciplinary action if the investigation reveals the contract was derailed by wrongdoing.
“I can assure that if it wasn’t an innocent mistake, there will be hell to pay,” he said.
He said the “stakes are high” and that the Air Force would work hard to remedy the problem. “We will work our asses off,” he said.
The contract for 20 Embraer AT-29 Super Tucano aircraft was awarded in December as part of plans to arm the Afghan military amid a NATO troop drawdown.
But the U.S. Air Force said it was not “satisfied” with the paperwork supporting the decision.
The AT-29 Super Tucano is a turboprop aircraft designed for low-threat environments.
Hawker Beechcraft Corp, based in Wichita, Kan., protested the award in federal court, arguing that its AT-6 plane was unfairly shut out of the competition.
Both sides in the contest have claimed their companies would produce a better aircraft and generate more jobs in the United States.