After delays of nearly a year, the U.S. Air Force has selected Sierra Nevada Corp. and its partner Embraer Defense and Security for its light air support program (LAS).
After a lengthy re-bidding process, the Air Force in essence 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 Hawker Beechcraft, which had promoted its own AT-6 as a candidate for the initial $427.5 million contract.
In a statement following the award announcement this week, the new Beechcraft Corp. expressed disappointment that its own proposal was not chosen. “Beechcraft is committed to advancing the aircraft’s capabilities and continues to pursue additional close air support opportunities,” read the statement. The company, it concluded, plans to meet with the Air Force “for a full debrief of the award and determine our next steps forward at that time.”
The initial contract calls for the purchase of 20 A-29s, which will go to Afghanistan, where they will be used to provide light air support, reconnaissance and training. “We are ready to begin production immediately,” said Taco Gilbert, v-p of integrated tactical solutions at Sierra Nevada. “We’ve been ready for a long time.”
He quoted senior leadership in Afghanistan as saying they have lots of pilots but no airplanes. The first deployment of the A-29 was originally scheduled for April 2013. Now, said Gilbert, “it may be the summer of 2014.” He described the turboprop single A-29 as “a high-performance, low-risk airplane that has flown 28,000 combat hours already, with no losses.”
As for questions regarding the selection of a bidder from another country, Gilbert pointed out that not only is Sierra Nevada Corp. a U.S. company, but also that the aircraft for the LAS program will be built in Jacksonville, Florida. And he added that with support from the state of Florida and the Jacksonville Airport Authority, the facility at Jacksonville International Airport is already undergoing modifications necessary to receive the assembly line, “ensuring that production can begin on schedule.”
Sierra Nevada estimates the LAS contract will support more than 1,400 U.S. jobs and more than 100 companies will supply parts and services. These jobs will add to the 1,200 Embraer workers already employed at Embraer’s business aviation facilities in Melbourne, Florida.