Light Air Support (LAS)
The Light Air Support Program is a further outgrowth of initiatives designed to develop low-cost alternatives to existing options for close air support and similar missions in low-threat environments. The US Air Force had identified countries in which the United States had a strategic interest that were often in need of a platform that could provide conventional attack and limited reconnaissance capabilities, but were restricted economically from purchasing and maintaining conventional weapons systems in the US Air Force inventory.
Stores of aircraft suitable for the foreign air forces in question had largely been depleted by 2000, leaving only expensive, complex combat aircraft available for export, such as the F-15, F-16, and F-18. A standardization effort established by General Dynamics for the F-16, by far the most commonly exported aircraft of the available types, meant that any move to sell surplus F-16As to foreign militaries would require $30 to $50 million in upgrade work apiece. This put them out of reach for the target countries. While initial requirements for the nascent Iraqi Air Force had disappeared, there was a similar need for such an aircraft in Afghanistan and the program continued.
Between October and November 2009, the USAF's Aeronautical Systems Center (ASC) conducted a market research assessment of fixed-wing platforms available immediately for use by the Afghanistan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC) for conducting advanced flight training and light attack operations. This was not to be confused with USAF Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) activities. This Sources Sought Synopsis focused solely on the need to explore cost-effective acquisition options to provide a productionized, weaponized, certified, and existing single-engine, turbo-prop, tandem-seat, pressurized, retractable tricycle gear Advanced Flight Trainer / Light Attack Aircraft (AFT/LAA) capability for ANAAC. Contractors responding to this market research were placed on notice that participation in the survey might not ensure participation in future solicitations or contract awards. The US government did not guarantee that any award would result from this Sources Sought Synopsis. The US government would not reimburse participants for any expenses associated with their participation in the survey.
The USAF was interested in purchasing a minimum of 6 aircraft with options to buy an additional 14. The aircraft were required to be properly certified to meet acquisition requirements and allow for US Mentor operation. The aircraft were required to have at least a total of 5 NATO/US compatible hard points, capable, but not limited to the following loadouts: laser guided and conventional munitions up to 500 pounds (minimum of Mk 81/82 class); rocket pod munitions; external fuel tanks; an aiming sensor that included a laser designator; or .50 caliber/12.7mm machine guns. The aircraft were also required to have a number of other pieces of equipment, such as ejector seats and GPS capability. Though performance was specified, the aircraft's dimensions were unspecified.
In April 2010, the US Air Force announced its intention to acquire a Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft for use by the Afghanistan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC) and other future customers. The fixed-wing platform would be used for conducting advanced flight training, aerial reconnaissance, and light attack operations. The announcement was a presolicitation, not an invitation for bid or a request for proposal. The LAS program would build off of the USAF's ASC's previously conducted market research assessment of production-ready, weapons-certified, fixed-wing platforms available for a cost-effective acquisition program. On 12 August 2010, the LAS program office released the first draft request for proposals, FA8637-10-R-6000.
The request for proposals was an opportunity for potential offerors to provide comments and ask questions of the program office before the release of the final request. The purpose of the contract was the acquisition of non-developmental Light Air Support Aircraft (LAS) for existing and future building partnership capacity nations. The procurement included necessary aircraft interim contractor support; ground training devices and corresponding contractor logistics support; and air advisor training for US pilots allowing them the capability to train other building partnership capacity nations.
On 21 May 2010, the House Armed Services Committee announced its full support for the Air Force's LAS aircraft concept to equip the ANAAC and other emerging partners, but was concerned that the pre-solicitation notice for the LAS aircraft included non-essential technical requirements that increased cost, inhibited competition, and imposed avoidable long-term logistical and maintenance challenges on the recipient air corps. As with any procurement, the committee believed that requirements should focus on demonstrated survivability and mission performance, while reducing cost and follow-on maintenance and logistics requirements.
After the formal establishment of the USAF LAS effort, it was expected that the companion Light Attack / Armed Reconnaissance program would leverage the LAS indefinite deliveries/indefinite quantities contract as a priced option if the technical requirements were validated to mirror the effort. On 29 October 2010, the Air Force issued a solicitation for light air support aircraft. For the solicitation, Hawker Beechcraft and the Sierra Nevada Corporation in partnership with Brazil's Embraer submitted aircraft for the RFP. Hawker Beechcraft submitted an variant of its T-6B Texan II trainer, the AT-6B. Sierra Nevada submitted Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano. LAS was a closely fought contest. Hawker Beechcraft sought to make light of the fact that US taxpayers had already invested billions of dollars into the US Air Force and Navy T-6 Texan II trainer fleets. This investment allowed Hawker to make a competitive LAS bid that leveraged the existing logistics, support, and pilot training investment already made by the United States Government. The T-6 family consisted of 4 variants at the time: T-6A, T-6B, T-6C and AT-6. Through 31 December 2011, Hawker Beechcraft and Raytheon Aircraft had delivered over 700 trainer aircraft, including over 600 under the JPATS contracts and 130 to international customers. Hawker Beechcraft had continued to invest in the AT-6, the light attack aircraft variant during 2011.
The US Air Force's final request for proposals defined the LAS aircraft as a non-developmental aircraft being procured for conducting advanced flight training, surveillance, air interdiction, and close air support. The LAS aircraft would be a single-engine turboprop fixed-wing aircraft with tricycle, retractable landing gear, tandem 2-place pressurized cockpit with ejection seats, capable of operating from semi-prepared air fields and employing various munitions from NATO-compatible hard points.
The initial procurement for the Afghan Air Force (AAF) would provide a platform for training AAF pilots and conducting air interdiction and close air support operations with AAF aircrews in the Afghan theater of operations. The intent was to procure 20 aircraft with the first 2 LAS aircraft to be delivered at an operational air base in Afghanistan by 30 April 2013. Interim contractor support would be required for all maintenance and supply requirements for the aircraft and associated support equipment for the first 2 years of LAS aircraft operations, with options for additional interim contractor support as required. A second operational air base would receive LAS aircraft deliveries starting in October 2014. Ground training devices and associated contractor logistics support would be procured to support pilot training. Additionally, training for US Government pilot and maintenance air advisors was required.
The initial LAS procurement was to be provided to the AAF to support the US objective of improving the capabilities of the indigenous forces of the Afghanistan government to provide for their own national security and resist insurgent operations. The operational requirements for the LAS were documented in the Memorandum of Request #10-E1A-603, dated 9 September 2009, issued by the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, and as amended on 9 January 2010 (Revision A), 28 April 2010 (Revision B), and 18 July 2010 (Revision C). This non-developmental item program was entering directly to the Production and Deployment Phase of acquisition.
The Contractor would be held to an 80 percent fully mission capable rate on a fleet-wide basis per month based on 24 hours per day, 7 days per week aircraft availability. Fully mission capable was defined as the aircraft being capable of performing all assigned missions per the mission essential subsystem list. Interim contractor support staffing and operations would be based on a 12 hours per day, 6 days per week schedule. The contractor would also be held to a maintenance cancellation rate of no more that 5 percent. The Contractor would maintain a main operating base capability to perform maintenance to achieve the required flight training schedules and aircraft mission capability rates for the LAS fleet. The required operations tempo of the LAS fleet was 60 hours per month per aircraft.
On 1 April 2011, Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas and an associated Kansas delegation sent a letter to the Honorable Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the United States Air Force, asking to be kept informed of the outcome of the competition. On 9 November 2011, Congressman Pompeo issued a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, inquiring about press accounts indicating that Embraer was under investigation for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In the interest of national defense, Pompeo urged Secretary Panetta to take the necessary time to understand the details alleged against Embraer pursuant to the LAS competition.
During weapons testing in Arizona in September 2011, Hawker Beechcraft's AT-6B dropped 8 laser guided munitions, scoring hits on all of its intended targets. The aircraft continued to meet or exceed expectations and was ready for full production if the US Air Force awarded the contract for the Light Air Support programs to the company.
Hawker Beechcraft submitted a proposal in response to the 28 December 2010 request for proposals. On the basis of initial proposals, the contracting agency established a competitive range that included Hawker Beechcraft. The contracting agency then conducted discussions with those offerors in the competitive range from 8 April to 23 September 2011. After reviewing Hawker Beechcraft's responses to issues raised during discussions, the Air Force concluded that the company had not adequately corrected deficiencies in its proposal. In this regard, the contracting agency concluded that "multiple deficiencies and significant weaknesses found in Hawker Beechraft's proposal made it technically unacceptable and resulted in unacceptable mission capability risk." On 1 November 2011, the Air Force sent Hawker Beechcraft a notice of its exclusion from the competition.
Excluding Hawker Beechcraft from competition created what amounted to a sole-source contract for Sierra Nevada-Embraer partnership. Hawker Beechcraft asserted that the US Air Force had erred in sending the notice to the company's physical government business address, rather than to company's designated mailing address, and due to this error the notice could not be considered received by the company until the time the notice reached company's contracts manager on 15 November 2012. However, the Government Accountability Office fundamentally disagreed with Hawker Beechcraft's premise that the US Air Force directed the notice of exclusion to an "incorrect" address, as the alternative address was not identified as a "mailing address" or Hawker Beechcraft's "correct" address. GAO timeliness rules did not turn on whether an agency has sent information to a particular designated address. Protest challenging the contracting agency's decision to exclude protester's proposal from the competitive range was dismissed by GAO on 22 December 2011.
After months of discussion, the Air Force excluded Hawker Beechcraft from the competitive range and, on 22 December 2011, awarded the contract to the Sierra Nevada Corporation, with the Tucano reported to be assigned the designation A-29. On 27 December 2011, Hawker Beechcraft filed a bid protest action in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking a declaratory judgment and a permanent injunction requiring the Air Force to set aside the award to the Sierra Nevada Corporation, reinstate Hawker Beechcraft to the competitive range under the procurement, conduct meaningful discussions with Hawker Beechcraft, request new final proposal revisions, and reevaluate the proposals in accordance with the terms of the solicitation.
On 30 December 2011, the Department of Defense formally announced that the Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada had been been awarded a firm-fixed price delivery order 0001 contract in the amount of $355,126,541 for the Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft and associated support. The delivery order was being issued under the simultaneously awarded basic contract FA8637-12-D-6001, an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract. This was a non-developmental aircraft procured for conducting advanced flight training, surveillance, air interdiction, and close air support. The LAS aircraft was a single-engine turboprop fixed-wing aircraft with tricycle, retractable landing gear, and tandem two-place pressurized cockpit with ejection seats, capable of operating from semi-prepared air fields. Ground training devices supported pilot training. Interim contractor support was required for all maintenance and supply requirements for the aircraft and associated support equipment, consisting of the following: 20 LAS aircraft; one lot interim contractor support long lead in the continental United States; one lot interim contractor support base activation outside the continental United States; 6 mission planning stations; 6 mission debrief systems; one computer based trainer ground training device; one flight training device ground training device; and one lot LAS flight certification to United States Air Force Military Training Center standards. Locations of contract performance were to be in Sparks, Nevada (55 percent) and Jacksonville, Florida (45 percent). Delivery order 0001 was expected to be completed by 30 April 2014. The basic contract had an ordering period of 60 months.
Deliveries were originally slated to begin in mid-to-late 2013. Sierra Nevada and Embraer said that the Tucano was "tailor made" for Afghanistan's counterinsurgency mission and provided a cost-effective, easy to sustain platform to help augment the Afghan Air Force's already capable lift and training platforms. The Tucano had already been a heavy lifter in fighting anti-government elements around the world. More than 150 units across the globe had logged a collective 130,000 flight hours with more than 18,000 combat hours and no recorded losses. Mirroring the same success in Afghanistan would rely in part on ensuring related costs of the Light Air Support aircraft stayed within the Afghan government's existing and projected budgets.
In January 2012, the USAF issued a stop work order to investigate the award. The USAF initially said that it believed that the competition had been conducted in a fair and transparent manner. In February 2012, however, the USAF decided to terminate the contract entirely. The contract was suspended in response to a lawsuit by Wichita, Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft, which protested the Pentagon's decision to not consider their AT-6 aircraft. The Air Force Service Acquisition Executive was not satisfied with the documentation supporting the original LAS source selection, which subsequently prompted termination of the contract on 2 March 2012.
On February 14, 2012, Hawker Beechcraft had filed a Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record and, in response, on 28 February 2012, the Air Force filed a Notice of Corrective Action stating that the Air Force intended to take corrective action with respect to the award at issue in the protest. The Air Force stated that it would set aside the award to Sierra Nevada Corporation; reinstate Hawker Beechcraft to the competitive range under the procurement; accept new proposals from the parties, based upon the existing solicitation in its original form, or as amended; conduct meaningful discussions with the parties; and reevaluate proposals in accordance with the terms of the solicitation. The Air Force also reserved the right to conduct a whole new competition. Based on its corrective action, the US Air Force, on 5 March 2012, filed a motion to dismiss the protest on mootness grounds.
Congressman Ander Crenshaw, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, on 6 March 2012 underscored his disappointment with the Air Force's 2 March 2012 decision to rescind its contract with Sierra Nevada Corporation during a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the FY13 Air Force budget. The contract to assemble Super Tucano aircraft for the LAS program at Jacksonville International Airport would have meant at least 50 new jobs.
On 1 March 2012, Reuters had quoted US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns at an event in Rio de Janeiro saying, "Embraer is obviously a great company and the Super Tucano is a very fine aircraft, …The United States is now in the midst of some internal processes but we remain interested." On 23 March 2012, AFP quoted the Brazilian Industry and Trade Minister Fernando Pimental as he discussed a conversation with US Officials saying, "They did not give official notice, but informally, they said: 'Wait for another tender, we are expecting a new tender." In a separate interview, Pimental stated that the issue would certainly come up in Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's talks with President Obama. Given the State Department had no official role in the process, Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas issued a letter on 16 April 2012 to urge the Department of State to steer clear of the competition in order to ensure the procurement process' integrity.
On 13 April 2012, the Air Force announced it would begin an entirely new bidding process for the LAS program. The delay meant that the aircraft were expected to arrive in Afghanistan in late summer 2014, at least 15 months later than initially planned.
On 4 May 2012 each offeror that submitted proposals in response to the original LAS solicitation was invited to submit a new proposal in its entirety in response to Amendment 0008 to contract FA8637-10-R-6000. The amendment implemented US Air Force corrective action in response to the protest filed by Hawker Beechcraft in the Court of Federal Claims. The Government had appointed a new evaluation team and no individual who served on the original evaluation team could be a member of the new team.
The Air Force awarded a $427,459,708.00 contract to Sierra Nevada Corp. on 27 February 2013 to provide light air support aircraft and associated maintenance and training for the Afghan air force. Under this contract, 20 aircraft are scheduled to be delivered to operational air bases in Afghanistan beginning in the summer of 2014 to conduct advanced flight training, surveillance, close air support and air interdiction missions. The first aircraft delivery to Afghanistan, as required by the updated request for proposal, is anticipated to begin in Summer 2014 at a rate of two aircraft per month.
"I am confident that the source selection process was disciplined and meticulous, and we are excited to provide a much-needed capability to our Afghan partners," said Lt. Gen. CR Davis, Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.
The Air Force’s Light Air Support (LAS) contract, awarded to Embraer on 27 February 2013, involved 20 planes worth $427 million, including spares and services. That was a typical light attack aircraft contract, in the smallest aviation industry segment. In a good year it’s worth $1.5 billion in jet and turboprop deliveries worldwide, less than a tenth the value of the world market for supersonic fighters. Beechcraft immediately announced that it would file a protest with the Government Accountability Office, and Congressman Mike Pompeo and Kansas senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, announced support for the company’s protest. This protest could conceivably stop the LAS contract for a second time; the first award, also to Embraer, was halted a year earlier after legal action by Hawker Beechcraft (as the company was then known).
Congressman Tim Ryan and Congressman Tom Reed, co-chairs of the House Manufacturing Caucus, as well as six other members of the Manufacturing Caucus, asked House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon and Ranking Member Adam Smith on May 17, 2013 to consider legislative proposals to limit a U.S. Air Force contract that they said could send as much as $10 billion to Brazil.
"This single acquisition will become the program of record for the “Building Partnership Capacity (BPC) of Partner States.” The USAF has stated in Congressional testimony that as many as 27 countries may purchase this aircraft through BPC. Even modest projections suggest the potential value of this award could be as high as $10 billion – in procurement dollars alone.
"The U.S. aerospace industrial base, which the DOD and our Nation rely upon to produce the finest military capabilities in the world, will be harmed by this decision and the American taxpayer will foot this bill. Brazil’s aerospace industrial base and workforce will be strengthened, while the U.S. is weakened, if the Department of Defense’s move to establish Embraer as the LAS program of record for the BPC is allowed to stand. Financed with as much as $1 billion in American taxpayer funding, Brazil will market its aircraft as the LAS program of record around the world."
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