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Super Tucano Is Winner in Contentious Light Aircraft Contest

The U.S. Air Force quietly made a somewhat surprising choice Dec. 22 when it tapped Brazil’s Embraer as winner of a hotly disputed contract to build counterinsurgency aircraft. The selection was made without an announcement and gained attention only after the planemaker that lost the contract took legal action.

Under the Light Air Support (LAS) program, the Brazilian planemaker will provide 20 of its EMB-314 Super Tucano, or A-29B, turboprop two-seaters for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

The program will be overseen by officials of the U.S. Air Force, which dropped the AT-6B Texan II aircraft from the LAS competition more than a month before selecting the only other aircraft in contention. Hawker Beechcraft manufactures the AT-6B in Wichita and the aircraft is popular with the Kansas congressional delegation, whose lawmakers, like Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan), dismiss the Super Tucano as “foreign.”

Hawker says it has never been told why its AT-6B was excluded. Pompeo said, “I am deeply disappointed by this announcement.”

In fact, there was no announcement – not from Washington, at least. According to a Hawker press release, under federal regulations, agencies are required to make a public award announcement by 5:00 p.m. Eastern time on the day of the award.


Four-Year History

The LAS effort is descended from a study of light armed warplanes that dates to 2007. The Air Force once intended to acquire 100 counterinsurgency aircraft and to place some of them into service in U.S. colors.

The LAS program is for an initial 20 aircraft for the Afghan air force for delivery beginning later this year, funded by the U.S.-provided Afghan Security Forces Fund. The program comes under a firm-fixed price delivery order contract in the amount of $355 million for the initial 20 aircraft and associated support. However, the planemaker could rake in $1 billion or more if the LAS order, as expected, lays a foundation for additional overseas purchases for a total of 55 to 60 aircraft.

Embraer is teamed with U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) as the prime contractor and says it will assemble the Super Tucanos at a new facility to be built in Jacksonville, Fla. – a move hailed by the city’s mayor, Alvin Brown, a democrat, who made his own public announcement on Dec. 30. Earlier promises by other aerospace firms for a new assembly plant in Jacksonville, most recently by the Italian planemaker Alenia, which builds the C-27J Spartan airlifter, have failed to materialize – along with promised U.S. jobs – and planes like the C-27J have ended up being built abroad. Embraer and SNC officials are keeping expectations modest, saying the new plant may create 30 to 50 jobs.

In addition to airframes, Embraer and SNC will supply the ground training devices – simulators and planning stations – and spare parts. Training operations will be provided in Clovis, N.M. SNC will provide in-field logistic support and pilot and maintenance training. More than 70 U.S. suppliers in 21 states will supply parts or services for this contract.

The 150 Super Tucanos in service with five air forces today have logged more than 130,000 flight hours, including 18,000 combat hours, according to Luiz Carlos Aguiar, CEO of Embraer Defense and Security.


Legal Action

Before the Air Force’s selection but after having its concerns dismissed for procedural reasons by the Government Accountability Office, Hawker Beechcraft filed a lawsuit at the Court of Federal Claims over its exclusion from the bidding process. The court’s ruling for a temporary restraining order is expected in mid-January.  Said Hawker CEO Bill Boisture, “We don’t understand the basis for the exclusion, and frankly, we think we’ve got the [better] airplane.” Hawker points out that because trainer versions of the Texan II are widely used in the U.S. military, maintenance and training systems and a parts supply chain are already in place. “Hawker deserves answers” was the title of a Jan. 2 Wichita Eagle editorial.

Analysts point out that the AT-6B is a converted trainer that carries all armament beneath its wings and fuselage while the Super Tucano was designed from the outset as a combat aircraft and has internal guns. Both aircraft use the 1,600-shaft horsepower Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68C turboprop engine – an upgrade for the AT-6B and standard for the Super Tucano. The Super Tucano has a wingspan of 36 feet 78 inches, a maximum takeoff weight of 11,905 pounds and a maximum speed of 367 miles per hour. The AT-6B has a wingspan of 33 feet 5 inches, a maximum takeoff weight of 8,424 pounds, and a maximum speed of 364 miles per hour.


Good News For Some

The LAS decision was “good news for some, bad news for others,” said one source. “This is great economic news for Jacksonville,” said Brown. “The award reaffirms that Jacksonville is the most military and business-friendly city in the United States.”

Said Aguiar: “We are committed to pursuing our U.S. investment strategy and to delivering the A-29 Super Tucano on schedule and within the budget.”

The LAS decision appears not to have been affected by a Securities and Exchange Commission subpoena of Embraer relating to possible violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The SEC’s intentions have not been made public, but the issue apparently relates to commercial airliners manufactured by Embraer and not military aircraft. Nor does the decision appear to be related to the fact that an entirely different U.S. planemaker, Boeing – with its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet – is a contender in a contest to build a fighter aircraft for the Brazilian air force.

Quite apart from the question of which aircraft should be chosen, the LAS program and its predecessors have detractors on Capitol Hill, who shot down a similar program for U.S. Central Command a few months ago. It may not yet be certain that the program will proceed in any form, let alone as currently planned.


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