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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has denied a challenge from Beechcraft to freeze work on the light air support (LAS) contract for Afghanistan, the latest event in what has become a public battle between the Witchita, Kan., based company and the U.S. Air Force.
The Court’s decision means that contractors Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer can continue to work on producing the 20 A-29 Super Tucanos that the Air Force decided is the best fit for the contract.
“The court granted the government’s motion for judgment on the administrative record and denied the motion for declaratory relief filed by Beechcraft,” Ed Gulick, USAF spokesman, wrote in an emailed statement. "Sierra Nevada Corp. will continue work on the LAS contract while Beechcraft’s bid protest proceeds at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which will decide the merits of the protest. Continued work on the LAS contract honors the US Air Force’s critical and time-sensitive commitment to provide air support capability to the Afghan Air Force (AAF).”
The LAS contract is designed to supply Afghanistan’s military with 20 planes, which should ensure air superiority in the country after the majority of U.S. forces leave. The cost is relatively small by US Defense Department standards, just $427,459,708, with a maximum amount of $950 million over the life of the contract. But both Beechcraft and its competition, a joint venture by Sierra Nevada Corp and the Brazil-based Embraer, view the award as vital for their businesses moving forward.
For Beechcraft, which officially emerged from bankruptcy in February, the award would represent a victorious return to the defense sector that could potentially jump-start international interest in its AT-6 fighter, also a single-engine turboprop. For Embraer, the award represents a way into the American market and as a growing global player in the defense industry.
Last year, the Air Force selected the A-29 Super Tucano, a single-engine turboprop plane designed for air-to-ground combat, as the best fit for the program. Beechcraft challenged the decision, both with the GAO and in court, and the Air Force decided to recompete before either case was completed. This led to a new competition, during which USAF officials were directed to ignore all testing and information provided in the original competition. In the end, the Air Force once again selected the Super Tucano on Feb. 27.
When SNC/Embraer was named the victor for a second time, Beechcraft filed a new challenge with the GAO March 8, demanding an investigation into why the service decided to pick the more expensive Super Tucano.
The challenge triggered an automatic stop-work order on the contract while GAO entered into a 100-day evaluation period ending June 7. But on March 15, the Air Force announced it would be overriding the freeze “in order to honor a critical and time-sensitive U.S. commitment to provide air support capability to the Afghanistan Air Force (AAF).”
That move was followed by Beechcraft’s suit, filed March 21. While the suit has been ongoing, work has continued on the contract. The initial challenge to the GAO is still ongoing.
“While we reluctantly accept the court’s opinion, we will continue to contest this award through the GAO and as a program of record for building partnership capacity with other nations that desire Light Air Support aircraft,” Beechcraft said in a company statement. “We remain committed to providing a superior aircraft for this mission that also protects national security interests, taxpayer dollars and preserves jobs in the U.S. aerospace manufacturing sector.”
“Today’s decision ensures that work will continue uninterrupted on the LAS contract and that we will be able to deliver these aircraft in mid-2014,” read a joint statement by SNC and Embraer. “Delivering the LAS aircraft on schedule is essential to the United States’ Capacity Building Partnership in Afghanistan, as it allows our troops to wind down U.S. involvement there, while helping to ensure the Afghans will be able to maintain security in the region.
Today’s decision also allows the process to continue of standing up the U.S. production facility for the A-29 Super Tucano in Jacksonville, Fla., hiring American workers to support that effort, and contracting with US suppliers for parts and services for the LAS contract.”