A couple of years ago, the Air Force got the idea of acquiring a fleet of light air support (LAS) aircraft to use in low intensity conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan where operating conditions were relatively primitive and the air defense environment benign. The LAS could be provided to other partner countries lacking the funds, infrastructure and experience to acquire or support more complicated combat aircraft. In order to meet very stringent timelines to deploy the first LAS to Afghanistan and keep the price down, the request for proposals specified a non-developmental aircraft — an off-the-shelf solution. Hawker Beechcraft proposed a variant of its venerable trainer, the T-6 turboprop and Sierra Nevada a version of the Super Tucano from Brazil’s Embraer. Both companies proposed filling their particular airframe with advanced avionics, sensors and weapons systems.
Last summer, the Air Force disqualified Hawker and in December awarded the contract for the first 20 LAS to Sierra Nevada. Hawker’s protest to the GAO was denied so the company sued. Yesterday, the U.S. Air Force took the unusual step of cancelling its contract with Sierra Nevada and apparently reinstating Hawker. In addition to performing a “volte face” on the LAS contract, the Air Force also has opened an investigation into its acquisition decision.
The LAS saga resembles the Air Force’s problematic effort to award a contract for a new aerial refueling tanker. That controversy set back the effort to modernize the aging tanker fleet by years and increased the costs by billions. The LAS debacle may in some ways be worse since on the tanker acquisition, once the GAO had ruled, the companies abided by the decision. In a tightening defense environment, could the Hawker decision to seek redress in federal court be a harbinger of things to come?
Regardless of the merits of the case and who eventually wins the LAS contract, it is clear that the losers are the U.S. and Afghan soldiers fighting the Taliban. The original goal was to deploy the first LAS to Afghanistan by early 2013. This would allow it to demonstrate its effectiveness, provide crucial support to the warfighter through two fighting seasons and give the U.S. a chance to train the Afghan Air Force in its use and maintenance. The GAO protest and the subsequent legal fight have already delayed the effort by months. Now the Air Force has further muddied the waters and injected a new delay into the process. Nor is this necessarily the end of the tale. Either party could respond to an unfavorable contract decision by the Air Force with another protest, although Sierra Nevada has no history of such actions. As a result, it is possible that LAS will arrive in theater too late to have any effect on the situation, possibly even after U.S. forces have withdrawn.
A major criticism of the Pentagon’s acquisition system is the length of time it takes to develop and deploy new weapons platforms. One reason for this is the torturous protest and review process. The Air Force went to great lengths to conduct a fair and reasonable competition. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Delaying a war critical program by a year or more is unacceptable. Yet, this is becoming all-too common in defense acquisition. Taking a page from the book of tort reform advocates, perhaps the Pentagon should require that the losing side in a protest pay the program back for the additional costs.
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