Even when it does everything right, the U.S. Air Force cannot seem to catch a break. All it was trying to do was acquire a handful of cheap, simple, reliable and capable light attack/support airplanes (LAS) for the Afghan Air Force. Because of time pressures — the United States is leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — a non-developmental airframe, one already built, tested and flown as it would be employed, was a requirement. Thus, there were only two companies competing for the contract.
The Air Force initially awarded a contract to a team led by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) with Embraer to provide its proven Super Tucano aircraft. The other contender, Hawker Beechcraft, protested to the GAO and when it was denied, went to court. The Air Force reviewed the award, cancelled it for reasons still unknown, and started over again with a new competition. Fast forward more than a year and the new competition was awarded to guess who? That’s right, SNC again. And you’ll never guess what Hawker Beechcraft did. Sure enough, it filed a new protest.
The complaint seems to be that the Air Force erred in awarding the contract to a company that presented the higher bid and which was awarded one lower score than its rival across the five factors under the heading of “mission capability.” But tilting the scales in SNC’s favor may have been its superior rating in such criteria as past performance — there are hundreds of Super Tucanos in operation with about a dozen air forces — and that the armed variant of the venerable AT-6 trainer proposed by Hawker Beechcraft is still in development.
The Pentagon’s acquisition system has sustained a barrage of criticism in recent years, including in this blog, for a host of missteps and misguided policies. One of the most egregious of the latter has been a penchant for promoting competition among contractors even to the point of sacrificing quality work and experience in a drive to lower costs. The explosion of competitive contracts awarded based on the standard of “lowest cost/technically acceptable” is an example of this phenomenon.
Thus, it is ironic that the Air Force should be criticized and its decision protested when it appears to have made a wise and studied decision based on balancing a range of factors including but not limited to price. Even more unfortunate is the additional delay another protest will impose in an important program already well behind schedule.
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