WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reaffirmed an Air Force decision to award the Afghan light air support (LAS) contract to contractors Sierra Nevada Corp and Embraer.
The decision, which could mark the end of a long-running legal saga, was announced Thursday afternoon, days before the Monday deadline when the agency would have to rule on competitor Beechcraft’s challenge of the contract.
“Today’s decision is a win for the American warfighters and our allies in Afghanistan who urgently need this light air support capacity to fulfill our mission there,” Taco Gilbert, vice president of Integrated Tactical Solutions for SNC’s Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance business area, said in a statement announcing the GAO decision.
“It is also a victory for the American workers who are producing this aircraft. SNC, Embraer and our partners across the United States hit the ground running February 27th, and we will deliver the most operationally capable aircraft on time and at the greatest value to the American public.”
Following the ruling, Beechcraft released a strong statement condemning the decision.
“It is deeply distressing that the Air Force selected a more expensive, less capable, foreign-manufactured airplane with weapons and systems unfamiliar to, and outside the control of, the United States military,” the company said in a statement.
“We have known that the requirements for this procurement were written to favor the competition’s aircraft. During this protest, we learned that the GAO’s review looks only at whether the Air Force followed its process, but not whether the process itself was actually correct or appropriate.”
“We question whether the Embraer aircraft with its foreign-made weapons can be certified to U.S. military standards in time to provide the mission-capable aircraft per the contract,” the statement continued. “It is now time for Congress to step in and put an end to this flawed acquisition process and limit the purchase of the Brazilian aircraft to only that of the Afghanistan requirement covered by the first delivery order of the LAS contract.”
Beechcraft has long slammed the Super Tucano as a foreign plane due to its design by the Brazilian-owned Embraer. Sierra Nevada Corp, an American company acting as the prime contractor for the Super Tucano team, has countered that claim, pointing out that it plans to build the planes in a new factory in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Kansas-based Beechcraft has already mobilized its local delegation to lobby the Pentagon on its behalf. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, as well as Rep. Mike Pompeo, have all made previous statements in favor of Beechcraft.
In turn, the SNC/Embraer team has relied on members of the Florida delegation to support the Super Tucano, which will be built in a large facility in Jacksonville. A bipartisan delegation from Florida made up of Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and Reps. Ander Crenshaw and Corrine Brown, who represent the Jacksonville area, have written letters in support of the A-29 team.
Although the cost of the contract is relatively small by US Defense Department standards — $427,459,708, with a maximum amount of $950 million over the life of the contract — both challengers view the award as vital for their businesses moving forward.
For Beechcraft, which 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. For Embraer, the award represents a way into the American market and a reputation as a growing global player in the defense industry.
It is also a major concern for Afghanistan’s Air Force, which badly needs the 20 planes to provide air support as the US withdraws from the country. USAF officials have repeatedly said getting the Afghan government these planes is key to security in the region.
But delivery of the planes has been delayed over a legal saga that has dragged on for years.
In early 2012, the US Air Force selected the A-29 Super Tucano, a single-engine turboprop plane designed by Embraer for air-to-ground combat, as the best fit for the program. It beat out the AT-6 fighter, also a single-engine turboprop from the company then known as Hawker Beechcraft.
Hawker challenged the decision with the GAO and in court, claiming that the Air Force had not followed proper contracting law and citing a lack of transparency in the process. The Air Force restarted the competition in April 2012, with officials directed to ignore all testing and information provided in the original competition.
During this period, Hawker Beechcraft exited bankruptcy, re-emerging as a company going just by the Beechcraft name. The results of the competition remained the same, however, with the Air Force selecting the Super Tucano on Feb. 27.
A week later, Beechcraft filed its challenge. During the 100-day waiting period, work on the contract is legally frozen. However, the USAF announced on March 15 that it would override 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).”
Beechcraft quickly responded by challenging in federal court. On April 19, a judge ruled in favor of the USAF and SNC/Embraer, allowing the companies to continue production on the plane.
Both planes will be on display at next week’s Paris Air Show.