Hawker Beechcraft to bid again on Air Force light air support contract worth up to $1 billion

Hawker Beechcraft is reviewing the Air Force’s amended request for proposal on a $335 million light air support contract and plans to submit a bid.

Proposals are due June 18.

The majority of the changes made by the Air Force to the amended proposal deal with how the proposals are to be structured and presented and how the Air Force will evaluate the bids, said Derek Hess, vice president of Hawker Beechcraft’s light attack programs.

The company plans to meet or exceed all the requirements, it said.

“We’re going to win it,” Hess said.

Hawker Beechcraft filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection May 3.

“We don’t expect this to affect our standing,” with the competition, said Hawker Beechcraft spokeswoman Nicole Alexander.

A company’s financial solvency is not part of the criteria used by the Air Force to select a winner or loser, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. And government officials can’t use criteria other than those included in the proposal to make a selection, Thompson said.

The Air Force said it expects to announce the winner Jan. 10, 2013, with first delivery by the third quarter of 2014. With contract extensions and add-ons, the contract could be worth up to $1 billion.

The request for a new round of bidding comes after the Air Force launched an internal investigation into the process of how it had earlier awarded the contract to Sierra Nevada for 20 Super Tucano airplanes from Brazil-based Embraer. The planes are to go to the Afghan government.

The Air Force eliminated Hawker Beechcraft and its AT-6 aircraft from the competition in November, saying the company had not adequately corrected deficiencies in its proposal. The next month, it quietly awarded the contract to Sierra Nevada.

Hawker Beechcraft appealed the Air Force’s decision with the Government Accountability Office, questioning the selection process and whether it was conducted legally. The appeal was thrown out because it was filed too late in a mailroom mix-up. The company then filed suit in January in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the Air Force decided to halt the contract process and issue the amended request.

The AT-6 is a modified Hawker Beechcraft T-6 trainer now used by the U.S. Air Force and Navy.

“This LAS (light air support) program is now in play because Hawker Beechcraft pressured the Air Force to start over,” Thompson said. “That means its competitors might be tempted to do the same thing in the future.”

The program is the “worst of both worlds,” he said. First, the schedule gets aborted because of bureaucratic mistakes, and the planes will get delivered late.

“Then the Air Force conducts a leisurely recompetition without even comparing their in-flight performance under real-world conditions,” Thompson said.

So guess what will happen? The losing side will protest, saying there were flaws in the selection process, he said.

“The light air support program is beginning to look suspiciously like America’s industrial mobilization effort in World War One, which didn’t manage to deliver any planes to the Western Front before Armistice Day,” Thompson said.

Through the court’s action, Hawker Beechcraft has received “some insight” into why the company was eliminated, Hess said.

But “we don’t have a good baseline of where we thought our issues were,” he said. “We’ve never sat down with the Air Force and gotten a debrief from them. We have some ideas, but all of that is subject to the court’s protective order (from the case filed in January), and therefore not widely known here.”

It’s too soon to offer substantive comments on the Air Force’s new proposal, Hess said.

But after a cursory review, Hawker Beechcraft is disappointed that the Air Force continued to include what the company calls “antiquated pilot accommodation standards for ejection seat equipped aircraft.”

The older requirements place the Air Force and its pilots at risk, it said.

Pilots of smaller stature could be injured in case of ejection, Alexander said.

For example, newer requirements accommodate potential physical differences between people, such as weight, arm length, sitting height and eye height, he said.

The Air Force’s proposal mandates only a certain sitting height.

The need is to accommodate “ballerinas and line backers in the same cockpit, and that’s kind of hard to do,” Hess said.

But it’s not impossible.

Hawker Beechcraft’s T-6 and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fit them. And the T-38 fleet is undergoing an ejection seat upgrade, Hess said.

The change is also important because Afghan men are generally smaller than U.S. men, he said.

And it will be helpful if the planes are used in Asia or places where the population is typically smaller than the U.S. population, he said.

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