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Pompeo, Roberts, Moran question Air Force’s light air support contract

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at 11:01 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at 4:26 p.m.

Members of the Kansas congressional delegation sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense asking why the Air Force passed over Beechcraft in a $427.5 million light air support contract to supply planes to Afghanistan.

The delegation is requesting a “thorough, compelling explanation for your decision,” the letter said.

The initial contract for 20 airplanes was awarded to Sierra Nevada Corp. and Brazil-based Embraer earlier this month.

The two partners offered the Air Force Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, while Beechcraft offered the AT-6, an attack version of its T-6 military trainer.

The contract could be worth as much as $1 billion, depending on future orders.

Beechcraft announced Friday that it is protesting the award based upon findings in a debriefing last week.

“This announcement is not only disappointing to workers in our state, but it raises significant concerns for the entire U.S. defense industrial base,” the letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said.

The letter was signed by Sen. Pat Roberts, Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Mike Pompeo.

According to the delegation’s letter, Beechcraft’s bid was 30 percent lower than that of Embraer and Sierra Nevada.

“As the nation is facing immense financial hurdles, including a trillion-dollar cut to the Department of Defense over the next decade, it seems unwise to select a higher-priced supplier with a product of inferior quality,” the letter said. “Furthermore, that supplier is based outside the United States.”

Beechcraft’s proposal would have preserved 1,400 domestic jobs at 181 companies in 39 states, the letter said.

“With our national employment rate at nearly 8 percent, it is imperative that programs funded by the taxpayer maintain a focus on increasing job growth and spending here at home,” it said.

An Air Force spokesman said the bids were fairly evaluated.

“We are confident that this decision is well supported and that the offerers’ proposals were fully and fairly evaluated, consistent with the evaluation criteria and the solicitation,” said Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, a spokesman for the Air Force.

Maureen Schumann, a spokeswoman with the Department of Defense, said only that the letter has been received and the secretary will respond directly to its authors.

For its part, Sierra Nevada and Embraer issued a statement saying that the Air Force looked at three criteria in selecting the contract winner: mission capability, past performance and pricing.

The A-29 Super Tucano received an exceptional rating on technical capability and low risk in all other categories, the statement said. The plane has a long, established track record.

“Based on these factors, we are confident the Air Force selected the A-29 as the lowest-risk solution for the U.S. and its partner nationals and overall best value,” the companies said in the statement.

The companies also said they plan to insource jobs to Jacksonville, Fla., where the planes will be assembled.

“We feel it establishes an exciting future model of bringing high-tech aerospace manufacturing jobs back to the United States to stem the recent tide of moving jobs offshore,” the statement said.

The award will support more than 1,400 American jobs, with more than 100 companies supplying parts and services, according to Sierra Nevada.

The Kansas delegation’s letter said the writers thought that the Air Force’s rejection of Beechcraft’s bid was based largely on whether Beechcraft could receive certification of the AT-6.

“This is an unreasonable concern given the history of its aircraft certification in both civil and military spheres,” the letter said. “Additionally, the accelerated timeline in this competition is due directly to the failures of the Air Force in the previous LAS procurement process, which caused nearly a year’s delay.”

The competition for the award has taken nearly three years. It has been plagued by delays and legal challenges as the two rival manufacturers battled for the contract.

It’s the second time Beechcraft has protested an award to Sierra Nevada and Embraer.

The Air Force canceled the deal in March 2012 following objections by Beechcraft, which said it had wrongly been excluded from the bidding process, and then Sierra Nevada challenged that decision, requesting that its contract be reinstated.

An Air Force investigation found that the bidding process had been flawed and that bias existed toward Embraer and Sierra Nevada, which led to the restart of the competition.

Sierra Nevada then contended that the revised bid proposal was tilted in favor of then-Hawker Beechcraft.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Christine O.C. Miller wrote in a Nov. 1 opinion that, based on the evidence of bias, “the Air Force’s decision to cancel the contract award to SNC and re-solicit proposals was reasonable and rational and should stand.”

Finally, the delegation argues in the letter that the light air support contract, which is under the Building Partnership Capacity Program, establishes a program of record for all 27 allied nations under the program.

“The BPC program’s intention is to share U.S. capacities, expertise, maintenance, part supply and so on with BPC allies,” the letter said. “However, by awarding the LAS contract to a foreign-based entity, the department has risked building true partnership capabilities.”

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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