Hawker Beechcraft is competing with Brazil-based Embraer for a U.S. Air Force Light Air Support contract.
The company has put its AT-6 light attack and surveillance aircraft up against Embraer's Super Tucano military aircraft in the bid for the award.
The prize is an initial contract to supply 20 aircraft to two air bases in Afghanistan and another 15 for the Air Force to use in "building partner capability."
But the number could grow to 55 aircraft worth up to $950 million.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"We believe this is the beginning of a production run that is significantly larger than this first 35 aircraft," said Derek Hess, director of light attack for Hawker Beechcraft.
The Air Force estimates a June 30 award date with deliveries beginning in April 2013.
The AT-6 is based on Hawker Beechcraft's turboprop T-6 trainer used to train U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots under the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System contract. Other countries are also using the plane.
The derivative readies the trainer for a new role — combat missions.
The AT-6 is designed for counterinsurgency, close air support, armed overwatch, homeland defense, homeland security and other missions, the company said.
A win would help Hawker Beechcraft's production line for the T-6 stay running.
"That's a key issue," said Jim Maslowski, Hawker Beechcraft president for U.S. and international government business. "This is about sustaining production."
The company has delivered nearly 700 T-6 trainers, including 444 to the Air Force and 123 to the Navy. Others have gone to Greek, Canadian, Iraqi, Israeli and Royal Moroccan air forces and NATO Flying Training in Canada.
Final deliveries to the U.S. Navy under the JPATS program are scheduled to take place in 2015.
Winning the AT-6 would help sustain 1,400 jobs in 20 states, including 800 Hawker Beechcraft jobs in Wichita.
That's how many currently work on the AT-6 and T-6 programs at the company and its U.S. partners and suppliers, the company said.
In January, Hawker Beechcraft signed an agreement with the Salina airport to use its facilities for pilot and maintenance training associated with the contract.
The AT-6 makes sense for the Air Force since all U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marine pilots train in the T-6, Maslowski said.
"It's the logical fit," Maslowski said.
It's an easy transition to fly the AT-6, he said.
In October, 39 airmen performed combat-representative training missions in the AT-6 on their second flight.
The plane uses the same mission computer as the A-10C and the same sensor suite from the MC-12W Project Liberty aircraft, which uses King Airs as its platform.
In January, Hawker Beechcraft and Embraer flew three sorties with their aircraft at Kirtland Air Force Base to demonstrate austere field, attack and reconnaissance, and advance training capabilities.
Last week and this week, Hawker Beechcraft is conducting weapons testing on the AT-6 in Gila Bend, Ariz.
Embraer in U.S.
The Light Air Support contract is part of Embraer's push to increase its North American presence.
Embraer in February opened a final assembly plant for its Phenom 100 business jet in Melbourne, Fla.
But it wants to establish itself in the U.S. defense market, officials told Aviation Week. In January, Embraer created a defense and security division.
Embraer declined comment about the Light Air Support competition.
However, the company told Aviation Week that it proposes assembling the Super Tucanos in Jacksonville, Fla., with training provided at Clovis, N.M.
Embraer partnered with Sierra Nevada Corp., which will act as a U.S. prime contractor for the bid.
Vice president for military marketing Acir Padilha told Aviation Week that the Super Tucano was built to operate in an austere environment, "with a comfortable cockpit for long flight duration and an open avionics architecture to integrate new systems and weapons."
Embraer projects a global market for 300 counter-insurgency aircraft over the next 10 years.
All Latin American operators except Chile use Super Tucanos primarily in combat roles, Padilha told the magazine.
The competition has gained attention in the wake of an Air Force award of an aerial refueling contract to Boeing over European rival EADS, from those who question giving a contract to produce sensitive defense equipment to a foreign company.
Officials from the Center for Individual Freedom wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates with the concern.
"American jobs, and ultimately American security, are at stake," said the letter, signed by CFIF president Jeffrey Mazzella and vice president for legal affairs Timothy Lee.
They point to a clause in Embraer's bylaws called the "Golden Share," which gives the Brazilian government veto rights to the "interruption of the supply of maintenance and replacement parts for military aircraft."
That's troubling, they say.
The Brazilian government could shut down the operation at any time, "leaving the United States no recourse on the matter," they said.
Christine Manna, an Embraer spokeswoman in Florida, said CFIF's "Golden Share" interpretation is incorrect.
"The Brazilian Government, through the Golden Share, cannot interrupt an ongoing contract entered into by Embraer," she said in an e-mail.