WASHINGTON: Wichita Congressman Mike Pompeo and Kansas senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have written the Pentagon to protest Wichita-based Beechcraft’s loss of the bitterly contested Light Air Support contract, Rep. Pompeo told Breaking Defense this afternoon. Beechcraft, which had offered its AT-6 Texan II aircraft, announced plans earlier today to file a formal protest against the award to Sierra Nevada Corp., which offered the Brazilian-designed Embraer Super Tucano. Depending on how you count, this marks the second or third time the military has tried to buy Super Tucanos only to run afoul of Beechcraft and its backers.

“Had Beechcraft not been best value, I don’t think you would hear a peep from anyone in the Kansas delegation,” Pompeo said, minutes before the letter went out to newly-installed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “[But] they chose the less qualified, more expensive aircraft,” he said — and, the Kansan claimed, the Air Force’s own assessment backs him up.

“More expensive” is clearly true. The Air Force announced that Sierra Nevada would provide 20 aircraft plus spare parts, training, and other support for $427 million. Beechcraft’s bid for its AT-6 Texan II was about 30 percent less, $297 million.

“Less qualified,” however, gets very complicated, as a series of confidential conversations quickly revealed. What people can say on or off the record is tightly limited by the laws governing competitions, protests, and proprietary data — click here for Sierra Nevada’s statement and here for Beechcraft’s — but here’s what Breaking Defense has figured out so far:

Beechcraft and the AT-6 scored “excellent” in five of five criteria for “mission capability,” criteria ranging from the technical performance of the aircraft to the kind of training programs the company could provide. The Super Tucano only got “excellent” on four of five. That’s apparently the basis for Rep. Pompeo’s claim that the Air Force itself ruled the Beechcraft plane was better.

But that’s only part of the story and of the scoring system. It’s entirely possible for Beechcraft to get more “excellent” marks and still lose overall. First, the Air Force doesn’t just grade inadequate/good/excellent on each aspect of each aircraft: It also applies a risk factor saying how certain it was that each competitor could actually deliver on that excellence in the future.

We don’t know those risk ratings, but the Beechcraft company just emerged from bankruptcy, and the AT-6 aircraft is still in prototype: While Beechcraft has built thousands of T-6 trainers for the US and its allies, the specific variant on offer — the armed ground-attack version, the AT-6 — is significantly different and not entirely proven. Competitor Sierra Nevada is hardly risk-free either, because their Florida factory has yet to build a single aircraft, but they would be making the exact same plane already mass-produced in Brazil and in service with nine nations. So there are both business and technological reasons the Air Force might have rated the Beechcraft AT-6 as higher risk.

In fact, alongside “mission capability” and price, the Air Force applies a whole third set of criteria, “past performance.” The Super Tucano boasts an extensive track record of service in countries from Colombia, where it’s seen combat against drug traffickers, to Mauritania. The basic T-6 has an even longer track record as the standard trainer for both the US Air Force and Navy, but only two prototypes of the specific AT-6 combat variant (both pictured above) even exist. If the US were choosing an aircraft for itself, the AT-6 would be a slam dunk, because it’s the big brother of something the American military knows and loves. But these planes are being bought on behalf of the fledging Afghan air force, and Afghanistan’s capabilities are a lot more like Mauritania’s than America’s. So the Super Tucano’s “past performance” track record looks both stronger and more relevant than the AT-6′s.

Of course, there is the definite possibility that the Air Force screwed up the contest. That’s what the Air Force’s own “command directed investigation” (CDI), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and a federal judge all found about the previous attempt to award the contract to the Super Tucano, in December 2011. “The court finds that ample evidence was before the Air Force to support its concern that the procurement was likely tainted by bias,” the judge wrote in November 2012, “bias in favor of SNC [Sierra Nevada Corp.].” So the Air Force tore up the 2012 award and started over — only to re-award the contract to Sierra Nevada last week.

Even before the Air Force’s fiasco, the Navy and US Central Command had attempted to acquire Super Tucanos to support Special Operations forces under programs known as “Imminent Fury” and “Combat Dragon.” Congress shot them down — some say because of interference from the Kansas delegation on behalf of Beechcraft, others because CENTCOM simply hadn’t done its homework on how to run the program.

Meanwhile, Beechcraft backers argue that the administration is tilting the scales to appease Brazil, noting that Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called Brazil’s defense minister to offer his congratulations within hours of the 2012 award. Beechcraft mobilized a massive “buy American” campaign in favor of its aircraft, even though Sierra Nevada insists it would build its Brazilian-designed airplane in its (yet to be completed) Florida factory.

So the Light Air Support contract has been a rolling, multi-year disaster, a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the military acquisitions system: meddling by politicians, incompetence by bureaucrats, and legal wrangling by the contractors. (Sierra Nevada filed suit itself at one point). Meanwhile US troops and their Afghan allies are without a lightweight, low-altitude air support plane that commanders first said was necessary in August 2009. Even without any further delay, the first planes — whichever plane is chosen — won’t arrive in Afghanistan until after most US forces have withdrawn.

“I certainly don’t want to delay this” any further, Pompeo told Breaking Defense. “I am not asking for the Air Force to select the Beechcraft product. I would never do a such a thing. I’m asking them to run a fair and competitive bid process…. The Air Force, ultimately, by making the decision to completely start over, admitted that their first process was flawed.”

“It certainly seems reasonable,” Pompeo said, “to ask a question or two.”

Edited at 8:50 pm.

Comments

  • tee

    Sore Loser Twice Now, The Super Tucano is a “Battle Proven System” the Beechcraft AT-6 is not, and with only 2 Demo Models and No Combat Record, get over it. The Air Force wants a Proven System, not it might work some day like their current JSF.

    • Ctrot

      I don’t think “battle record” is the be all and end all. P-40′s had a battle record when the P-51 was designed and ordered in hundreds before it was proven. Just because something has a battle record doesn’t mean the new and unproven product isn’t or can’t be better.

      • PolicyWonk

        You are correct about the P-40. But by the time it went into service as far as taking place in the war – when compared to the latest British, German and Japanese designs, it was already obsolete.

        Hence – the US came out with a variety of new fighter aircraft designs between the P-40 and P-51 (land and carrier-based).

        • Ctrot

          The P-40 may have been obsolete by the time it was used in combat but it did very well in the hands of well trained pilots. But that wasn’t my point. Tee seems to think that just because the Super Tucano is “battle proven” that alone automatically makes it better than the AT-6. If that criteria were the “be all and end all” it would argue against moving from the proven P-40 to the unproven P-51. Likewise the F-4 Phantom was battle proven when we began replacing it with the unproven F-15, I could name a dozen such examples. Just because a given weapon system is “battle proven” does not mean that something else can’t be better.

    • kentsan

      Flying a Super Tucano is combat equals blowing your own brains out. Clown aircraft.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=669256998 Randy Puraty

    How insane is it to buy Brazilian, when there is a US alternative?

    • JimBobJoe

      I’m all for “buy American,” but if it influences the Brazilians to pick the F-18 in their fighter competition, then it’s a good idea, I think. “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.” America need’s closer ties to Brazil, and Brazil is a significant market for arms. This isn’t a very big contract for America, but it is to Brazil.

      A lot of countries love the Super Tucano, and it would be assembled in America.

      • PolicyWonk

        Sir,

        You are correct. The Kansas delegation knows that it could stand to lose 1400 jobs, but at the end of the day – should Brazil purchase F-18s, not only will it purchase more (and a considerably great sum on money on the line), but there are more jobs that would be preserved.

    • shloime

      how insane is it to buy american, if there is a more suitable alternative? and would you change your mind, if you life actually depended on it?

    • nmr

      Embraer may be a Brazilian company but it has bases in Florida an Tennessee that keep a lot of people employed. If they are going to build the birds in Florida that’s a lot of new job openings

      • kentsan

        Yea right. Just like EADS. Hire a few people to bolt pieces made in Europe and call it “American made.” F them.

  • des111168

    Not to worry. By the time they’re actually built (in paltry numbers), we’ll probably be out of Madmanistan, and then USAF will cancel the program and sell them off, as the blues hated doing CAS. Not glamorous enough.

    • Jefe’ von Q

      Perhaps it’s time for the Army to start running fixed wing CAS. The Air Force can suck eggs. They’re the ones (along with Marines, but they already have theirs) who need it.

    • http://defense.aol.com/ Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

      Actually, the plan IS to give these over to the Afghans. Part of what’s at stake is getting on the ground floor for whatever (US-subsidized) air force Kabul ends up building:
      http://defense.aol.com/2012/01/03/air-force-buys-light-attack-planes-for-afghans-not-u-s/

  • RK Campbell

    What seems to be forgotten is that the Super Tucano was designed & built as a combat aircraft that can also be used for training, whereas the AT-6 is an armed version of a trainer. The Super Tucano has built-in gun armament (2×12.7 mm HMGs) &, if I remember correctly, built-in armour around & under the cockpit. A single-seat version is available & used by the Brazilian Air Force. In Brazil, it equips 3 frontline squadrons & one training unit. As far as I know, the AT-6 has neither built-in gun armament nor armour.

  • Poofypuppy

    The Pentagon should cancel the LAS contract altogether. Whether it’s $427 million for (Embraer) Tucanos or $297 million for (Beechcraft) Texan II’s, either way it’s a waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars to give these aircraft to the Afghans, who probably couldn’t operate and fly a squadron of Cessna 172s for more than a year before they got destroyed by Taliban attacks. And it’s not like we don’t have plenty of pressing budget needs right here at home (USA). Just cancel the whole thing now. That will get both sides/contractors to shut up.

  • http://twitter.com/RSPW_DEP David Powell

    I have a feeling the USAF is pushing the Embraer product to guarantee that infighting keeps any counterinsurgency turboprop program in the hangars. This whole thing should have been settled more than ten years ago. An air to mud COIN turboprop would be huge, and might as well make it in the USA as an all up local plane like the Beechcraft or maybe license build. However the price point is too strong for me to see this as anything except some of the USAF higher ups trying to scotch the program entirely. The Beechcraft planes could have been in service years ago, in our forces as well as allied ones, roles that they are quite capable of fufilling. They don’t go Mach 2 or zoom climb, they get the job done though.

    • http://defense.aol.com/ Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

      > The Beechcraft planes could have been in service years ago

      Actually, that’s a point of contention, since the Beechcraft AT-6 attack model is still in prototype, with only two planes built (the vanilla T-6 trainer has years of service but you can’t just retrofit it as an attack plane; it’s a different design). The Super Tucano, by contrast, definitely could have been bought — from the Brazilians, another sticking point — and put in US service any time in the last decade.

  • DHeinz

    The Lexington Institute article by Dr. Goure is the most balanced discussion. In it, he concludes:

    “Thus, it is ironic that the Air Force should be criticized and its decision
    protested when it appears to have made a wise and studied decision based on
    balancing a range of factors including but not limited to price. Even more
    unfortunate is the additional delay another protest will impose in an important
    program already well behind schedule.”
    The broken part of the acquisition system is less about the weighting factors for selection and more the excessive delays driven by a protest system that takes too long and provides no means for arbitration.

  • DW

    “Beechcraft’s two prototype AT-6 Texan II attack planes in flight.”

    Prototype!!!

    Battle proven aside, what type of info can be shared on ground maintenance for this platform?

    What is the UTA for this piece of equipment?

    It may be 30-40% less expensive in the purchase price but how much will sustainment cost? RISK

  • Hitman

    Thanks for the well balanced article Sydney. As you point out, the major problem with the process is that the USAF couldn’t achieve a solution. $500M is a relatively small purchase for the USAF. These cost effective COIN aircraft are not only good for the fledgling Afghan AF, but also for the US. At less than 10% the cost of purchasing and operating F16s or A10s (the two least expensive attack/fighter platforms) in low threat Africa/Afghanistan operations environments, the cost savings is evident. With a robust missile warning, electronic, and expendable system (like the AT6 ALQ-213 which I’m familiar with), these planes are, in many ways, more survivable than their expensive counterparts. Why use a $15M AT-6 or $20M Super T to do a job that a $200M F35 can do equally well?