Several years ago, the Air Force recognized that it needed to have on hand a new type of aircraft designed expressly to support counterinsurgency missions and to be operated and maintained by allies and partners. The “test case” was the new Afghan Air Force. The U.S. Air Force published a request for proposals for a Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft which was to be a simple, propeller-driven aircraft intended to provide both air-to-ground strike and tactical ISR support. In order to speed the process and reduce costs, the LAS had to be a non-developmental aircraft, that is one already in service and with a demonstrated capability to perform the required missions. One of the program’s objectives was to have the first aircraft in the field by Spring 2013 in order to allow U.S. trainers and Afghan pilots and maintenance personnel sufficient time to become familiar with the LAS.
Two teams competed for the program. One was headed by aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft offering a version of that company’s venerable T-6 trainer. The other, led-by Sierra Nevada Corporation teamed with Embraer, a Brazilian aircraft maker, offered a version of the Super Tucano. The LAS program would be the debut for the attack variant of the T-6. The Super Tucano was already in service as a counterinsurgency/counter narcotics platform in a number of Latin American countries.
As has been the all-too frequent case with Pentagon acquisition programs, the LAS became mired in contracting missteps. In 2011, the Air Force disqualified the Hawker Beechcraft candidate and awarded the LAS contract to Sierra Nevada/Embraer. Protests were filed and lawsuits initiated. Earlier this year, the Air Force cancelled its award to the Sierra Nevada team, reinstated Hawker Beechcraft and restarted the competition. Throughout its stumbles and fumbles, the Air Force never explained the grounds on which it originally disqualified Hawker Beechcraft, why it then concluded that this decision had been in error and why it felt it was then necessary to start over rather than complete the original competition.
Not surprisingly, the LAS program’s contractual and legal battles naturally resulted in some nasty public comments and accusations. One of the most scurrilous was that an award to the Sierra Nevada team would benefit a foreign company and outsource jobs to Brazil. In fact, Embraer had promised to build a plant in the United States to manufacture the LAS and to source more than 50 percent of the aircraft’s content from U.S. companies. Moreover, Hawker Beechcraft’s claim of being a U.S. company is undermined by the fact that it is half owned by a Canadian holding company (the other owner is Goldman Sachs).
Now it turns out that even as it was touting itself as an American brand, Hawker Beechcraft was in discussions with a number of companies, most foreign, to sell itself. According to recent reports, the likely purchaser is Superior Aviation of Beijing. The Chinese company will not buy Hawker Beechcraft’s defense division, the one involved in the LAS competition. That would be a step too far. But splitting up the company could well impact its ability to perform on defense contracts. The more likely consequence is more turbulence for the company as the remaining part is shopped around to other interested parties.
The larger issue is whether or not it makes sense to allow a Chinese company to acquire a significant foothold in the U.S. aerospace industry. Does it make any sense for the U.S. military to “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region in order to counterbalance growing Chinese military power and at the same time to allow a Chinese company with government connections to do an end-around by penetrating this highly critical sector of the U.S. economy? I don’t think so. Hopefully, the government body responsible for reviewing these kinds of acquisitions, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) will see this as a dangerous precedent.
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