All the precincts have reported in and all the votes have been counted. It is official; a team led by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Embraer is definitely and absolutely the winner of the competition to build the Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft for the Afghan military. The General Accountability Office (GAO) denied the latest protest by the other competitor, Beechcraft, and validated the way the Air Force conducted the competition and its decision to award SNC the contract.
The saga of the LAS competition is a good example of what is wrong with the current defense acquisition system. Initially, the program was intended to acquire up to 100 relatively simple, lightweight, non-developmental aircraft for use primarily by friendly air forces but possibly also by the U.S. Air Force for low intensity and counterinsurgency operations. Eventually the program was squeezed down to just 20 aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. Given the planned withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan by 2014, it was important to put the LAS in the hands of Afghans as soon as possible. The original goal was to have the first aircraft deployed by early 2012 so that the Afghans could begin training with it.
There were only two competitors for the award: the SNC team offering the A129 Super Tucano, already in operation by more than a dozen countries as a light attack and reconnaissance aircraft, and Beechcraft with an untested variant of its venerable trainer, the T-6. Moreover, Beechcraft was in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings; a large portion of the company was recently sold to a Chinese buyer.
Twice the Air Force awarded the contract for the LAS to the SNC-led team. Twice Beechcraft protested the decision to the GAO. After the contract was awarded to SNC/Embraer the second time, the Air Force went so far as to declare that it would go ahead with the award because “unusual and compelling circumstances that significantly affect the national security interests of the United States and its coalition partners will not permit waiting for a GAO decision.” Now the GAO has had the final word and the word is yes to the Air Force and the SNC team.
The problem is that the LAS will be deployed only in late 2013. The harm caused by the two-year delay is not to SNC, a stellar defense electronics and systems integration company that was continuing to work on a variety of major defense programs while the LAS controversy swirled, but to our Afghan allies and to the ability of U.S. forces to leave that country in a position to manage its own security. It is clear that the U.S. will be working with the fledgling Afghan Air Force long after the majority of U.S. and friendly foreign forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan.
The defense acquisition system is mired in regulations, processes, procedures, reviews, protests, legal proceedings and politics. When a non-developmental system takes years to get on contract and into the field it is clear that the system is busted. It is a good thing that SNC and Embraer decided to hang in when the going got tough on LAS. The outcome says good things about them. It also says some very troublesome things about how we acquire military capabilities.
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