WASHINGTON — Five GOP lawmakers from North Carolina have asked a U.S. watchdog agency to probe a deal with the Kenyan government for 12 weaponized surveillance aircraft.

The lawmakers on Thursday asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the sole-source award to L-3 Technologies, which they say overcharges Kenya and, they claim, overlooks more experienced and less expensive North Carolina manufacturer IOMAX. Kenya is buying the aircraft from the U.S. through the foreign military sales program.

In a letter Thursday to GAO chief Gene Dodaro, the lawmakers questioned whether the Defense Security Cooperation Agency performed its due diligence, asserting the decision "raises troubling possibilities." 

On Jan. 23, the State Department announced the sale of up to 12 ISR-equipped Air Tractor AT-802L and two AT-504 trainer aircraft, totaling $418 million. The sale is meant to assist operations against the Somali militant group al-Shabaab and augment the African Union Mission in Somalia.

The planes in question would supplement Kenya's aging F-5 fleet and are deemed more cost-effective and better able to be stationed near battle zones than the F-5.

L-3's platform integration division, in Waco, Texas, was announced as the prime contractor.

In a January earnings call, L-3 officials hailed the announcement as a boon to its aerospace systems group and emblematic of foreign opportunities under the Trump administration.

The market for light aircraft armed with weapons and surveillance gear— the "poor man's A-10"— has tracked with the rise of counterinsurgencies and the need for economical options, particularly in Africa, according to Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. It's a small market, and IOMAX is a dominant player in it. 

If the sale goes through, it would not be the first time an Air Tractor aircraft was married to L-3 gear. At the Paris airshow in 2011, Air Tractor sold the United Arab Emirates 10 AT-802U light attack aircraft fitted with an L-3 Wescam MX-15Di electro-optical infrared sensor and Rover data link, Defense News reported at the time.

The North Carolina lawmakers, led by Republican Rep. Tedd Budd, argue IOMAX, of  Mooresville, N.C., has 48 of its Arcangel aircraft in service, and it would provide an equivalent "apples-to-apples" package of aircraft for $181 million less than the deal with L-3.

The five lawmakers raised these concerns in a separate letter to the Kenyan ambassador to the US on Tuesday, asking his government to "take these facts, in particular the prospect an ongoing congressional investigation, under consideration as it decided whether or not to proceed."

The State Department referred Defense News to US Ambassador to Kenya Bob Godec's statement Feb. 18, which noted the deal is not just aircraft, but training, spare parts, ammunition, and weapons systems. He said the "process underway is transparent, open, and proper" and that the Kenyan defense ministry would be able to review the itemized deal before it is final.  

L-3 declined to comment for this article, and the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a call seeking comment. 

Email:    jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @ReporterJoe

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