Delays in the U.S. Air Force’s Light Air Support (LAS) program caused by a mishandled competition, lawsuits, and a political imbroglio over aircraft selection have left an empty space at Shindand airfield in Afghanistan. The base is busy with other activity, but the ramp at Shindand intended to showcase newly developed Afghan combat aircraft is empty.
“Shindand Air Base has an 8,000-foot runway, a gleaming new headquarters complex and a cadre of motivated Afghan pilot candidates,” wrote Nathan Hodge in the Wall Street Journal July 25. “However, it lacks warplanes.”
The stalled LAS program has a tortured history. At its core the program is a rivalry between a U.S. prime contractor – Sierra Nevada Corp. – offering the Brazilian-designed Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, also called the Super T and the A-29, and another U.S. company – Hawker Beechcraft – offering its AT-6 Texan II, which is a derivative of a Swiss design. A competition between the two was supposed to produce a fleet of 21 light, armed fighter-bombers ready to operate at Shindand in time to coincide with the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
Politics and legal findings, not military capability, appear likely to determine the future of the LAS program and of the facility for combat planes at Shindand.
The Super Tucano, being offered by Sierra Nevada Corp. in partnership with Embraer, represents an opportunity for Brazil’s aerospace industry to gain entry to the U.S. military market. To give the aircraft as much of a U.S. imprimatur as possible, Embraer plans to assemble the aircraft in a new plant in Jacksonville, Fla. – and the Sierra/Embraer team is emphasizing the “Super T” appellation because “Tucano” sounds foreign to some American ears. Although officials don’t acknowledge any link, a U.S. decision to buy the Super T could influence whether Brazil chooses an American candidate in its ongoing competition for a new fighter for its air force.
The Texan II, being offered by Hawker Beechcraft, which filed for bankruptcy protection in May, is assembled in Wichita. Earlier this month, Hawker Beechcraft accepted a purchase offer of nearly $1.8 billion from Chinese company Superior Aviation Beijing Inc. Hawker Beechcraft Defense, which produces the AT-6, will not be included in the transaction, which has yet to pass regulatory review. The Kansas congressional delegation has gotten earmark funding for military demonstration flying by the AT-6 in the recent past and has relentlessly opposed efforts by the Pentagon to purchase even a small number of Super Ts.
The Super Tucano’s presence on the American scene began in 2007 with the classified Navy Irregular Warfare office project called Imminent Fury, using a Super Tucano borrowed from the contractor Xe, formerly called Blackwater. Conducted in two phases, Imminent Fury wrapped up in 2010 with U.S. combat commanders enthusiastic about the aircraft and its potential in counter-insurgency fighting in Afghanistan.
In October 2011, the Kansas lawmakers orchestrated the killing of the modest $44 million Combat Dragon II lease program (originally, Imminent Fury Phase III) that would have put four Super Ts into Afghanistan. The program had strong support from then-U.S. commander in Afghanistan Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. United States Central Command boss Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis called it “a test program to see if we can use turboprop planes to replace much more expensive planes, but more importantly, more effectively in the counterinsurgency environment.”
The Air Force carried out its more ambitious, $355 million LAS program in 2011 and early this year. While the program was unfolding, the Air Force dropped the AT-6 from contention, proceeded with the competition, and in December 2011 signed a contract making the Super Tucano the winner. Just weeks later in February, in response to a lawsuit filed by Hawker Beechcraft, the Air Force canceled the contract to buy the Super Tucano and said it would start the LAS program all over. The service announced a revised request for proposals for a new LAS program on May 8.
The Hodge story in the Wall Street Journal quotes retired Brig. Gen. Taco Gilbert of Sierra Nevada as saying, “We do think that we won on technical merits, we do think we have the only solution that’s out there.”
While there was little transparency in the conduct of the LAS program, Kansas lawmakers were watching closely. Although the nation’s top airman candidly shouldered the blame for bungling the program, very little of what transpired has ever been explained except that the Super Tucano award was said to have had “insufficient documentation.”
“There’s no way to put a happy face on this,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz after the Air Force terminated the LAS contract effective March 2, 2012. Gen. Mark Welsh III, who is expected to succeed Schwartz Aug. 1, was not asked about LAS during his Senate confirmation hearing in July.
Sierra Nevada filed an action in the U.S. Court of Federal appeals on June 11 seeking reinstatement of the LAS contract. According to the suit, the new source-selection process eliminates any flight demonstration or evaluation and moves the date for completion of the “first article test” to July 2014.
While both contractors are eager to discuss the capabilities of their competing aircraft, neither wants to talk publicly about the ongoing lawsuits. However, reinstating the contract award to Sierra Nevada would be the only way the Air Force could achieve its objective of having the first two aircraft at Shindand by July 31, 2014. The plan calls for two aircraft to follow monthly until November and for Kandahar Air Base subsequently to receive two aircraft monthly between December 2014 and April 2015, until delivery of all 21 airframes is complete.
If the second LAS program proceeds, a source selection will not occur before mid-2013, making it extremely unlikely that any aircraft can be flying operational missions for the Afghan air arm in 2014.
Separately, a program to supply the Afghan air arm with 15 to 20 C-27A Spartan twin-engined airlifters is delayed due to spare-parts issues and other concerns. Air Force personnel have had better success training the Afghans in helicopters, including the Russian-designed Mil Mi-17 “Hip,” and in light aircraft such as the Cessna 208 Caravan.
Many wonder why the Super T versus Texan II rivalry can’t be resolved on merit, based on the military potential of the competing airplanes. Most observers see the Super Tucano as superior: it was designed from the outset for the military mission and has internal guns. The AT-6 is a derivative of a successful and widely used trainer but must carry a gun externally. AT-6 supporters argue that because T-6A and T-6B trainer models are in wide service in the Air Force and Navy, logistics and maintenance troops will find it easier to support the Texan II.
“The Super Tucano is combat proven,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former fighter pilot and intelligence official, in a July 25 telephone interview. Deptula flew the Super Tucano last November.
“It’s in service with a variety of different nations,” said Deptula. “It’s exactly what the Air Force requested – a fully developed airplane that didn’t require any additional development and would be ready and able to do the kinds of multi-purpose missions required in Afghanistan.”
Many observers say the mishandled LAS program illustrates the need for acquisition reform – something that can happen only if Congress changes its ways. LAS “is a symbol of an acquisition system that is hurting rather than helping the United States,” said Deptula. “What is wrong with the system is that we are delaying combat capability needed to help our allies.”
The Wall Street Journal portrayed eager young Afghan pilot trainees saying they want fighters – LAS aircraft. “I want to be a fighter pilot,” said one.
It now appears their hopes will not be fulfilled for several years.