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Beechcraft Corporation’s Light Air Support (LAS) Contract Protest Denied by GAO

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) on June 13 denied Beechcraft Corporation’s protest of the U.S. Air Force contract award to Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and partner Embraer for the Air Force’s Light Air Support (LAS) program. The Air Force had chosen the A-29B Super Tucano in a second round of LAS bidding after an earlier version of the competition ran into obstacles. The GAO decision appears to clear the way for SNC and Embraer to assemble twenty A-29Bs in a plant in Jacksonville, Fla., for use by the Afghan air force with U.S. help.

The LAS contract includes ground-based training equipment, pilot and maintenance training, and logistical support. Although the program has suffered a significant delay because of wrangling by lawyers and lawmakers, in a joint statement, SNC and Embraer said delivery of the initial aircraft will occur in mid-2014 and that this “allows time for the necessary training before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Some observers wonder if the plane to build up the Afghan air arm really can make significant progress before the scheduled withdrawal.

In its statement, Beechcraft referred to the “contract to Brazil-based Embraer,” with no mention of SNC or of Jacksonville. Under the proposals submitted by both competitors in the LAS contest, U.S. workers would have assembled an aircraft derived from a foreign design in a plant in the United States.

The A-29B (now the official Pentagon designation for the aircraft) or Embraer EMB-314B Super Tucano was designed from the outset as a combat aircraft and is slightly larger than its competitor. Beechcraft’s AT-6 Texan II is an armed version of a popular trainer, widely in use with U.S. forces. Because the A-29B is a Brazilian design, supporters of the AT-6 dismiss it as “foreign” even though the AT-6 itself is a derivative of the Swiss Pilatus PC-9.

A Super Tucano in flight. The LAS competition between the A-29 and AT-6 Texan II has been hard fought and sometimes bitter. SNC photo

A Super Tucano in flight. The LAS competition between the A-29 and AT-6 Texan II has been hard fought and sometimes bitter. SNC photo

Reacting to the decision fell along predictable lines, with SNC and Embraer liking it and Beechcraft calling it “deeply distressing.”

“Today’s decision is a win for the American warfighters and our allies in Afghanistan who urgently need this light air support capacity to fulfill our mission there,” said Taco Gilbert, an SNC vice president, in a statement. “It is also a victory for the American workers who are producing this aircraft.”

In its statement, Beechcraft referred to the “contract to Brazil-based Embraer,” with no mention of SNC or of Jacksonville. Under the proposals submitted by both competitors in the LAS contest, U.S. workers would have assembled an aircraft derived from a foreign design in a plant in the United States.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...