Hawker Beechcraft Corp. filed suit Tuesday with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims questioning the Air Force’s decision to exclude its AT-6 aircraft from a contract potentially worth nearly $1 billion.
The action comes after the company was notified that the Government Accountability Office had dismissed its initial protest.
“We think we were wrongfully excluded from the competition,” Hawker Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture said Tuesday. “We don’t understand the basis for the exclusion, and frankly, we think we’ve got the best airplane.
“So we’re going to take every avenue available to us to make sure our product is fully evaluated and recognized for what it is. There are several issues here that just, frankly, don’t make sense.”
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For the past year, Hawker Beechcraft has competed against Brazil-based Embraer for a contract to supply 35 aircraft to the Air Force. That number could grow to 55 and be worth up to $950 million. Deliveries were scheduled to begin in 2013.
The AT-6, adapted from the company’s T-6 trainer, was designed for counterinsurgency, close air support, armed overwatch and homeland security. The company has said that winning the contract would keep its T-6 production line running after 2015, when final deliveries of the trainers to the U.S. Navy are scheduled to take place.
If Hawker Beechcraft wins the contract, it would preserve 1,400 U.S. jobs at 181 companies in 39 states, the company said. That includes 800 at Hawker Beechcraft, Boisture said.
In November, the Air Force informed Hawker Beechcraft that it had been excluded from the competition in what is called a “pre-award exclusion.” The company has been trying to learn the reason for the action.
The company filed an inquiry with the GAO for a review of the exclusion and a protest. In dismissing Hawker Beechcraft’s protest, the Air Force said the company missed a three-day deadline to file a request for a debriefing and a 10-day deadline to file a protest, the GAO’s report said.
“That’s what the Air Force is alleging,” Boisture said. “There comes a point, though, where the facts of the matter would seem to be more important than the procedural correctness.”
A Pentagon spokesman said, "Hawker Beech has filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. Because of this protest, we cannot comment on a matter pending under litigation."
Hawker’s exclusion leaves Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano as the lone contender. Embraer has teamed with Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. and has said it would build the turboprop in Jacksonville, Fla., should it win the contract.
In its report, the GAO said the Air Force found Hawker Beechcraft’s bid “technically unacceptable,” one that would result in an “unacceptable mission capability risk.” It did not give more detail. That wording was in the Air Force’s letter to Hawker Beechcraft notifying the company that it had been excluded from the competition, Boisture said.
Boisture said the AT-6 has been evaluated and proven capable through a multi-year program led by the Air National Guard. Hawker Beechcraft and its partners have worked with the Air Force for two years to develop parameters for the light air support competition and invested more than $100 million preparing to meet the Air Force’s requirements, he said.
The AT-6 is a single-engine, two-seat turboprop used by the U.S. Air Force and Navy for pilot training. About 740 T-6 airplanes are in service and have amassed more than 1.8 million flying hours.
“Every fixed-wing pilot in the United States military today is trained on this airplane,” Boisture said.
The AT-6 is smaller and lighter than Embraer’s airplane, although both have the same engine, Boisture said.
“Fundamentally, that says that airplane (the Super Tucano) has lower performance; it’s slower; it has less on-station time when it’s carrying the same amount of weapons, and the range and the top speed of the Brazilian aircraft, when compared to the AT-6, are less,” he said. “We have an airplane that can go into a U.S. or U.S.-related battlefield environment and perform. We’ve proven that.”
In addition, the parts, maintenance and training for air and ground crews for the AT-6 are in place, he said. That would have to be set up to field the Brazilian aircraft.
“You look at all that, and you say, what was the basis for exclusion?” Boisture said. “I think the company deserves to know, and since the U.S. taxpayers are going to pay for this, I think they deserve to know.”