The U.S. Air Force would like to begin the New Year by breathing new life into its Light Air Support (LAS) program.
The program aims to put 20 light, armed combat aircraft into operation in two squadrons of the Afghan air force (10 each at Shindand and Kandahar), with the planes becoming operational before the planned 2014 withdrawal of U.S. forces.
It is a competition between the Brazilian-designed Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, also called the Super T and the A-29, and the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II. An earlier version of the program awarded the contract to the Super Tucano but became mired in political and legal issues before the Air Force canceled it. An Oct. 15, 2012 federal court decision appears to pave the way for the Air Force to reboot LAS and conduct its second incarnation of the competition, with the same competitors and the same stakes.
Federal Claims Judge Christine O. C. Miller ruled that the Air Force’s decision to cancel its earlier LAS contract with Sierra Nevada Corp (or SNC, the prime contractor with Embraer for the Super Tucano) and to re-solicit proposals from SNC and Beechcraft was “a reasonable response” to evidence of bias toward SNC uncovered in an internal investigation. SNC had hoped to proceed with the earlier contract award while Beechcraft clearly wanted another chance to prevail in the competition.
When the court decision was announced, Air Force spokesmen said the rebooted LAS competition was proceeding and a source selection would be made early in 2013.
Planemakers have been giving flights in the competing aircraft to well-known retired generals. Gen. Charles F. “Chuck” Wald flew the Super Tucano at its home base in Sparks, Nev., in December. Wald was responsible for air operations during the initial stages of the Afghan war. In a statement released by SNC, Wald said, “This is an affordable aircraft that gives you F-16-type [weapons] delivery performance.” Retired Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Remington, until recently the U.S. air commander in Korea, flew the AT-6 at the Wichita factory last February and sang its praises. SNC is hanging its marketing effort for the Super Tucano on the argument that it was “designed for the mission,” while the less robust AT-6 is a converted trainer. Although both aircraft would be assembled in plants on U.S. soil, Super Tucano detractors attack its “foreign,” i.e., Brazilian, origin.
Although the LAS effort is funded through to source selection, additional funds will be needed to cut metal on new airframes. A variety of factors could influence LAS’s future, including a very tight budget climate and current concerns over so-called “green on blue” violence with ostensibly friendly members of Afghan forces attacking Americans. The LAS program isn’t mentioned when service leaders like Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh describe their top priorities. The program may well be “a symbol of an acquisition system that is hurting rather than helping the United States,” in the words of retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who also flew the Super Tucano, but no one in Washington is certain that it will proceed as planned. Earlier efforts at a light air support aircraft dating to 2006 have simply fallen by the wayside with the passage of events.