After delays of nearly a year, the U.S. Air Force announced in late February that it had selected Sierra Nevada and its partner Embraer Defense and Security as winners of its light air support (LAS) contract, an award that carries an initial value of $427.5 million.
The decision came after a lengthy rebidding process in which the Air Force confirmed its original choice of the A-29 Super Tucano, built by Brazilian airplane manufacturer Embraer. The re-bidding was prompted by a protest from U.S. manufacturer Beechcraft, which had entered its own AT-6 as a contender for the program.
Through the Court of Federal Claims, Beechcraft filed on March 21 to contest the Air Force decision to lift the stay of performance on the contract while the GAO continues to review Beechcraft’s protest. A GAO ruling of the protest is expected by late May, according to Beechcraft.
In its protest to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Beechcraft pointed out that, “one-thousand, four-hundred jobs in Kansas and other states are in jeopardy as a result of the Air Force decision.”
“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 the less capable aircraft,” said Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture. “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 [other] recourse than to file a protest with the GAO.”
In a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sent by Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and Congressman Mike Pompeo, the Kansas contingent said the decision “raises significant concerns for the entire U.S. defense industrial base.” It echoed many of Boisture’s arguments, emphasizing as well that, “now is the time to invest in U.S. jobs and manufacturing and not abroad.”
Winner: Award Means Jobs for U.S. Workers
Sierra Nevada and Embraer refuted the assertions by Boisture and the Defense Secretary, claiming that in evaluating the two competitors, the Air Force had looked at three criteria, in priority order: mission capability, past performance and pricing to determine overall best value.
“The A-29 received an exceptional rating on technical capability and low-risk in all other categories,” said the two companies in a joint statement. “The Air Force determined that the price it is paying for the superior A-29 was part of the ‘overall best value’ [and] we look forward to a rapid Government Accountability Office decision on Beechcraft’s protest.”
In an interview with AIN, Sierra Nevada v-p Taco Gilbert described the A-29 as “a high-performance, low-risk airplane that has flown 28,000 combat hours already, with no losses.”
As to the matter of selecting a bidder from another country, Gilbert pointed out that not only is Sierra Nevada a U.S. company, but the aircraft for the LAS program will be built in Jacksonville, Fla. In fact, Embraer Aircraft Holding announced on March 15 it has signed a 10-year lease on a 40,000-square-foot hangar in which the A-29 for the LAS program will be assembled. On March 21, shortly after the Beechcraft court filing, Embraer announced it is “continuing to move forward with our contractual obligations to support the LAS program,” and on March 26 hosted an official ribbon cutting at the new facilities at Jacksonville International Airport.
Sierra Nevada estimates the LAS contract will support more than 1,400 U.S. jobs and more than 100 U.S. companies will supply parts and services. These jobs, the company said, will add substantially to the 1,200 workers already employed at Embraer’s business aviation facilities in Melbourne, Fla., and to the number of first- and second-tier source suppliers.
The Afghanistan military had expected to deploy the first A-29s next month but with the delays, the first deployment is now scheduled for next summer.
The initial contract is for 20 A-29 Super Tucanos, all of which will go to the Afghanistan government for light air support, reconnaissance and training. Subsequent orders might drive the total long-term value of production to nearly $1 billion.