WASHINGTON [updated Friday 3:30 pm to add details from the Air Force statement and comment from Hawker Beechcraft CEO]: The Texan II is back in the saddle again. Next week, on Tuesday the 17th, the US Air Force will meet with both Hawker Beechcraft, which makes the AT-6 Texan II attack plane, and rival Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is offering the Embraer Super Tucano, to review a draft of a new Request For Proposal on the troubled Light Air Support program. If all goes well — which it certainly hasn’t so far — the Air Force expects to make its decision in early 2013 and deliver the first aircraft to Afghanistan in the third quarter of 2014, what its official statement released Friday afternoon admits is “a delay of about 15 months.”
Tuesday’s meeting will be the first time that the Air Force and Hawker Beechcraft have spoken (at least officially) since the service disqualified the AT-6 from the LAS competition in November, leaving the Brazilian-designed Super Tucano as the sole competitor — a decision that Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has publicly called a embarrassing mistake. The Air Force “set aside” — i.e. cancelled — the award to Sierra Nevada Corp. on Feb. 28 and launched an investigation into the botched process. A new RFP and a new competition have been widely anticipated, but Breaking Defense learned Thursday from two separate and solid sources that those things are actually happening. It is tantalizingly unclear whether the timing has any connection to the recent Washington visit of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — with Embraer CEO Frederico Curado in tow.
“It’s what should happen,” said Hawker Beechcraft’s satisfied CEO, Bill Boisture, of his company’s impending meeting with the Air Force on the new RFP. “We have a very fine aircraft, we’re an established supplier of the US Air Force and the US Navy, and it’s not like they’re doing us a favor.”
Now Boisture wants to make sure the new RFP is up to snuff, with more rigorous requirements — ones more in line with US Air Force standards and presumably harder for a foreign competitor to meet — on ejection seats, certification of capability to deliver US and NATO weaponry, and information systems. “Part of the flawed process was that their old requirement wasn’t a good requirement,” Boisture told Breaking Defense.
Movement on LAS is particularly timely for Hawker Beechcraft, which has recently admitted record losses for 2011 and may have to file for bankruptcy. Even Hawker does go into Chapter 11, Boisture insisted, “we don’t anticipate that will have any effect on our ability to perform on the contract when we win it or perform on the current contracts that we have…. We have a balance sheet problem, not an operational problem.”
Though a small program for the Pentagon, at just $355 million for 20 airplanes with options up to $955 million for 55, the Light Air Support program has hit plenty of hot buttons. Within the military, buying such a small, slow, robust ground-attack plane is seen as a litmus test for the Air Force’s investment in counterinsurgency, or the lack thereof. On Capitol Hill, the now-cancelled decision to buy a Brazilian design rather than a US one — even though both planes would be mostly built in the United States — has sparked a bitter “Buy America” backlash. On the internet, conspiracy theorists have circulated bizarre rumors about George Soros. And the groans are being heard round the world as the Air Force somehow fumbles yet another acquisition as it famously did the KC-X tanker.