A contract for 20 light air support (LAS) airplanes destined for Afghanistan’s fledgling air force has stalled again, as Beechcraft Corporation filed suit against the U.S. Air Force to halt work on the project. This is Beechcraft’s third challenge to the $427.5 million contract, which the Pentagon awarded to Brazilian-based Embraer and its U.S. partner, Sierra Nevada Corporation. After the last challenge, Pentagon officials overrode the "stop work" portion of the protest to allow work on the planes to continue. Beechcraft’s latest action threatens to stifle that progress.
In the meantime, Embraer and SNC have signed a lease on a hangar at Jacksonville International Airport, where much of the assembly of 20 turboprop A-29 Super Tucanos is expected to be completed; SNC will build the avionics package at a Colorado facility. The turboprop has been in service in a variety of countries since the late 1990s.
The debate extends an already lengthy process that on its surface was painted as a battle between American jobs and foreign corporate interests. Additionally, Beechcraft officials argued, their proposed aircraft would cost less. Embraer for its part pointed out that the Pentagon contract called for a "non-developmental, in-production aircraft." Beechcraft’s proposed AT-6 did not meet that qualification as, at the time of the proposal, only two prototypes existed (the T-6 on which it is based, however, has an extensive and successful history).
Citing "unusual and compelling circumstances," Pentagon officials sided with Embraer, highlighting the fact that there is a time-sensitive need for the aircraft in Afghanistan, where NATO-led troops are already beginning to withdraw. The selection process, they noted, has already extended over two years, and the airplanes were expected to be delivered by 2014. Delays now threaten to disrupt American plans to leave Afghanistan.
The loss of the contract comes at a difficult time for Kansas-based Beechcraft, which recently emerged from bankruptcy with a recovery plan specifically designed to focus on the turboprop business.