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Kansas congressional delegation calls for stop on light air support contract work

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 15, 2013, at 11:15 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, March 16, 2013, at 8:13 a.m.

Members of the Kansas congressional delegation and Beechcraft Corp. are opposing an Air Force decision that allows Sierra Nevada Corp., in partnership with Brazil-based Embraer, to restart work on a light air support contract while the award is under protest.

“I don’t know when the Air Force is going to start getting it right,” said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. “They are circumventing the appropriate and legal process.”

The Air Force awarded a $427.5 million light air support contract for 20 airplanes to Sierra Nevada and Embraer earlier this month, passing over Beechcraft.

Beechcraft filed a protest with the General Accountability Office last week.

Sierra Nevada and Embraer offered the Air Force Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano for the project, which is to provide aircraft to Afghanistan after U.S. forces withdraw from the war there.

Beechcraft offered the AT-6, an attack version of its T-6 military trainer, for the work. Beechcraft would have built the planes in Wichita. Sierra Nevada says it plans to build the planes in Florida.

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

Members of the Kansas congressional delegation are asking the Department of Defense to halt work on the contract until the Government Accountability Office rules on Beechcraft’s protest.

The Air Force said work needs to start so the U.S. can honor a critical, time-sensitive commitment to the Afghanistan Air Force.

The Competition for Contracting Act provides for action to restart the work, called overrides, when it’s in the best interest of the U.S. or if there is “unusual or compelling circumstances” that won’t let work stop during a protest period.

Roberts, Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Mike Pompeo sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Friday protesting the decision to allow work to begin.

“To proceed with a contract that may not stand up before the GAO is a waste of taxpayer dollars and an affront to good governance,” the letter said. “Furthermore, to spend money in a foreign country on a product that the Air Force may be ultimately unable to procure is foolish — especially at a time when DOD is struggling to fund vital programs and adequately equip the warfighter. In these austere financial times, this behavior is simply unacceptable.”

The GAO has 100 days to render its decision.

“One hundred days is a lot of time in Kansas, but in Washington, that’s a fly-by,” Roberts said. “It’s very puzzling to me. I don’t see why 100 days would make any difference in order to get it right.”

Beechcraft said in a statement that it is reviewing its options to help reverse “this misguided action.”

“When it comes to producing aircraft that will help Americans come home from Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force (Friday) concluded that America’s ‘best interest’ now rests on the shoulders of Brazil,” the company said. “This decision is very misguided. It will lead to the loss of American jobs and substantially higher costs to American taxpayers.”

Invoking the override procedure to go forward with the contract while it’s under review turns “upside down” the definitions of national security and protection of the country’s aerospace industrial base, it said.

“Moreover, the Air Force’s decision to bypass the normal GAO review process deprives the American taxpayer of transparent answers to legitimate and well-documented questions to what has been a very opaque LAS acquisition,” Beechcraft said in the statement. “The correct decision would be to protect our national security interest by selecting the lower cost, American-made aircraft that the Air Force rated ‘Exceptional’ and one that is built around an airframe, weapons and systems that are familiar to, and under the control of, the United States military.”

Competition for the award has been going on for nearly three years.

It has been plagued by 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 can’t seem to get it right,” Roberts said. “I’m concerned about the process.”

The Air Force canceled the deal in March 2012 after Beechcraft claimed it had wrongly been excluded from the bidding process.

At that time, the Air Force issued a Stop Work Order for work on the contract. An Air Force investigation found that the bidding process had been flawed and that bias existed toward Embraer and Sierra Nevada.

That led to a restart of the competition.

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

In the meantime, Roberts said he has not been briefed by the Air Force on its decision. But he spoke with Hagel about the loss of the award to Beechcraft.

“I told him at that time I thought that was the wrong decision simply because it’s a domestic (planemaker) with a proven record,” Roberts said.

The letter to Hagel urges him to personally re-evaluate the decision and to stop work on the contract.

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

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