The US Air Force is ordering Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and partner Embraer to restart work on a contract to supply Afghanistan with 20 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft.
"[On 15 March] the Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Contracting authorized Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation to restart work on the Light Air Support (LAS) contract after notifying the Comptroller General of her decision," the USAF says.
The service says that it had to unfreeze the contract "in order to honor a critical and time-sensitive US commitment to provide air support capability to the Afghanistan Air Force (AAF)." Work on the contract was stopped on 11 March after losing bidder Beechcraft filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO). SNC and Embraer were awarded the LAS contract on 27 February.
"The Competition in Contracting Act provides for such actions, called overrides, when it is determined to be in the best interests of the United States or unusual and compelling circumstances will not permit waiting for the GAO's decision," the USAF says. "The override does not affect the 100 day period that GAO has to render its decision on the LAS protest. The Air Force is fully committed to supporting the protest process."
The USAF is in a hurry to get the LAS in service with the Afghan air force before relations with that nation's government deteriorate further to where the programme may be terminated regardless of any protests, says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Virginia-based Teal Group. "I think there is an excellent chance it just gets cancelled not because of the protest, just because we're buying them on behalf a highly uncertain ally-who may not be an ally for much longer," he says.
Nonetheless, machines like the Super Tucano or Beechcraft AT-6-a derivative of Switzerland's Pilatus PC-9-are the only fixed-wing strike aircraft the US can realistically offer Afghanistan, Aboulafia says. The US is not willing to supply that nation with advanced attack helicopters like the Boeing AH-64 Apache or supersonic fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-16. Nor is there a ready supply of aircraft like the Russian Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot available, he says.
Beechcraft released a strongly worded statement in response to the USAF's decision to move forward on the LAS contract.
"When it comes to producing aircraft that will help Americans come home from Afghanistan, the US Air Force today concluded that America's "best interest" now rests on the shoulders of Brazil," Beechcraft says. "This decision is very misguided. It will lead to the loss of American jobs and substantially higher costs to American taxpayers."
Beechcraft claims that the USAF is outsourcing "American defense jobs" by overriding the stop work order. The company further asserts that "the definitions of national security and the protection of the US aerospace industrial base have been turned upside down."
Additionally, Beechcraft called the LAS acquisition process "opaque", and says that the USAF's move "deprives the American taxpayer of transparent answers to legitimate and well-documented questions."
Beechcraft's aggressive response is likely due to the company's precarious post-bankruptcy financial situation. "If the AT-6 doesn't go ahead-and it probably won't go ahead without a US endorsement, they only have the King Air," Aboulafia says. "There is more at stake for Hawker Beechcraft because of their restructuring plan."
Embraer, meanwhile, hopes to use the Super Tucano deal to expand its defence business and secure a US toehold. The company says that it will build the 20 Super Tucanos ordered under the LAS contract in Jacksonville, Florida.