SAN JOSE DOS COMPOS, Brazil — The U.S. Air Force has overridden a stop-work order for the Afghan light air support (LAS) contract on the basis that it is necessary for the “best interests” of the United States.
The LAS contract was frozen last week when competitor Beechcraft challenged the Air Force decision to award the contract to Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer. The news was announced in an Air Force statement released March 15.
“In order to honor a critical and time-sensitive U.S. commitment to provide air support capability to the Afghanistan Air Force (AAF), today the Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Contracting authorized Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation to restart work on the Light Air Support (LAS) contract after notifying the Comptroller General (GAO) of her decision,” read the statement.
When a challenge to a contract is filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), work on that contract is automatically frozen until GAO provides a ruling. That ruling is due within 100 calendar days of the challenge — in this case by June 7, if not sooner.
The service used a clause in the Competition in Contracting Act that allows for an override of that work-stoppage for the “best interests of the United States or unusual and compelling circumstances.”
“The override does not affect the 100 day period that GAO has to render its decision on the LAS protest,” the statement read. “The Air Force is fully committed to supporting the protest process.”
Shortly after the Air Force decision, Beechcraft spokeswoman Nicole Alexander released a strong statement.
“When it comes to producing aircraft that will help Americans come home from Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force today concluded that America’s “best interest” now rests on the shoulders of Brazil,” Alexander wrote. “This decision is very misguided. It will lead to the loss of American jobs and substantially higher costs to American taxpayers.”
“By invoking this override procedure to outsource American defense jobs, the definitions of national security and the protection of the U.S. aerospace industrial base have been turned upside down,” the statement continued. “Beechcraft will review its options, with the goal of helping protect U.S. best interests and the Afghanistan Air Force, to reverse this misguided action.”
Speaking here March 14, Luiz Carlos Aguiar, CEO of Embraer Defense, expressed confidence that the selection of the Super Tucano would hold up to the challenge from Beechcraft.
“The process was so robust [and] senior people took control of the process,” Aguilar said. “I think they did the right thing, they did it by the book, and they will prove that.
“It’s going to take some time,” he said. “But I think this time we are going to get there.”
When asked whether the challenge could delay the contract being completed, Aguilar replied “I hope not.
“We are ready to go right away in order to deliver on time, but we need to be patient and wait a little bit more” for the process to play out, he said.
Beechcraft filed the challenge March 8. At the time, CEO Bill Boisture said the company was “perplexed” by the choice of the SNC/Embraer Super Tucano over the Beechcraft AT-6.
“We simply don’t understand how the Air Force can justify spending over 40 percent more — over $125 million more — for what we consider to be less capable aircraft,” said Boisture in his statement announcing the challenge. “Given our experience of last year and our continued strong concern that there are again significant errors in the process and evaluation in this competition, we are left with no recourse other than to file a protest with the GAO. The Air Force needs to make the right decision for the nation and our future allies.”
At a press event, Aguiar countered claims from Beechcraft supporters that the decision to go with Embraer would be bad for American workers by pointing out the significant job cuts Beechcraft has made as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He said there is “no doubt” that Embraer is the better job for American workers.
Aguiar’s comments came amid strong criticism that an SNC/Embraer victory would cost American jobs, both from The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, whose workers would benefit from a Beechcraft victory, and members of Congress who represent the Kansas area where Beechcraft is located.
This is the second time in a year that the Air Force decided to award the contract to the SNC/Embraer pairing, and the second time that Beechcraft has challenged the decision.
The Air Force selected the turboprop combat plane early last year, but it was forced to recompete the program after Hawker Beechcraft lodged a formal complaint with the GAO and filed a lawsuit in federal court.
The Air Force relaunched the competition last April, although the Super Tucano and the AT-6 were the only competitors. The relaunching of the contract nullified the lawsuit from Hawker Beechcraft.
During the period the contract was recompeted, Hawker Beechcraft went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company, now rebranded with just the Beechcraft name, announced its restructuring in mid-February.
At the time, Boisture praised the USAF for how it was handling the competition. The process “proceeded with a great deal of urgency, and yet care. Our interactions with the Air Force on this round of competition have been very professional.”
“I guess it’s the triumph of hope over experience,” Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said at the time about the second protest. “I don’t really know what they’re hoping to accomplish.”
“I’m just not sure what the grounds [for protest] would be,” he added. “The AT-6 is good, but the Super Tucano is heavier and more capable, and that’s obviously a key part of the selection criteria.
“If Beechcraft is just waiting for political pressure to weigh in, the delay could just be a few months,” Aboulafia said about the protest. “But given the way things are going in terms of Afghan military requirement, it might scuttle the whole deal if requirements change or if the picture changes.”