In candid language, the United States’ top airman acknowledged that the Air Force bungled its program for a Light Air Support (LAS) warplane to support Afghan military forces – and will now kill the program.
“There’s no way to put a happy face on this,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz after the service announced that it would terminate the LAS contract effective March 2, 2012.
Earlier, Air Force officials had dropped the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II from consideration without a public explanation and subsequently selected the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, also called the A-29B. Marketed in the United States as the “Super T” – apparently out of concern that the word “Tucano” evokes its overseas origin – the latter aircraft was being offered by its Brazilian planemaker with Sierra Nevada Corp as the prime contractor for U.S. sales.
Schwartz called it a “profound disappointment” that irregularities made it necessary to put the brakes on the $355 million awarded to Sierra Nevada and Embraer to buy 20 Super Tucanos for the Afghan military, with options for 15 additional aircraft.
The Air Force boss, in a meeting with reporters in Washington, said that “the documentation of the source selection [authority], which awarded the contract to Sierra Nevada and its sub[contractors] didn’t meet [Air Force] standards.”
“We have to move quickly now,” said Schwartz, to restore the competition, begin again, “and get it done before the funds expire.”
“We have labored diligently to improve our acquisition process,” said Schwartz. He added, “If we fumbled on this, we obviously haven’t arrived at the point where we are providing the level of acquisition excellence that’s expected.”
Gen. Donald Hoffman, Air Force Materiel Command boss, has begun an investigation of “our standard of due diligence and adequacy of oversight,” said Schwartz. This will “help us understand if there are still systemic issues involved,” he said.
In a separate statement, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said his service had fallen short in its pursuit of “perfection” and that that Air Force acquisitions executive David Van Buren was “not satisfied with the quality of the documentation” supporting the contract award to Sierra Nevada.
Schwartz said the Air Force’s “institutional reputation is at stake.” He said airmen will “work their asses off” to learn where the LAS contest went astray and to set things right. If there was anything other than an “innocent” mistake made, “there will be hell to pay,” said Schwartz.
Wichita-based Hawker Beechcraft, which enjoys support from the Kansas congressional delegation, filed a protest shortly after the Air Force passed over its AT-6 aircraft. When the protest did not succeed, the planemaker filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. That suit is still pending. Some observers in Washington question whether the current political climate will allow procurement of the Super Tucano, which is perceived as “foreign” at a time when employment is a domestic U.S. political issue.