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U.S. acquisition mistakes put Afghan air force's new fleet at risk


It took an extra year and left the Air Force's acquisition team with egg on its face, but Sierra Nevada Corp. still ended up with the $427 million contract to provide 20 light support planes to the Afghan air force.

The Air Force had to cancel the initial contract in 2011 awarded to Sierra Nevada Corp. after Beechcraft Corp. protested the award. Following the protest, the Air Force discovered mistakes made in the paper work throughout the acquisition process forcing the Pentagon to re-open the competition.

Air Force officials still chose the Super Tucano offered by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Brazil's Embraer for a contract that could be worth up to $900 million over the life of the contract.

Because of the mistakes made by the Air Force, the contract for the 20 planes will cost U.S. taxpayers an extra $72 million and the first ones will not start arriving to Afghanistan until 2015. The original contract awarded in 2011 was for $355 million and set to have planes delivered by 2014.

However, the 2015 delivery date is the key data point because it's unclear if U.S. Air Force trainers will still be in Afghanistan to help the Afghan air force learn how to fly the planes. President Obama set 2014 as the deadline to remove most, if not all, of America's military footprint from Afghanistan. The president has still not decided how many U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014 if any at all.

The Afghan air force is still at its most infant stages and will likely need as much help from the U.S. Air Force trainers to set up their fleet. Afghan pilots and maintainers are improving, but still struggle with the basics.

Unlike the situation in Iraq, the U.S. Air Force had to stand the Afghan air force up from scratch. Many of the pilots had not flown for years since the Soviets still controlled the country.

The goal of buying the Brazilian-made Super Tucanos was to offer the Afghans a simple plane to operate and provide a light attack capability against the Taliban. However, the challenge to stand up the program gets harder with the possibility of U.S. Air Force trainers not standing along side the Afghans.

The delay also threatens potential support funding. The U.S. is paying for the 20 planes, but in 2015 the amount of funding to Afghanistan's military will drop. Afghanistan is already planning significant cuts to its force starting in 2015 once the U.S. support leaves.

It's unclear yet where those cuts will happen, but it's likely the Afghan air force will not avoid them.

Losing funding also means the quality of the infrastructure goes down supporting the planes. Spare parts, maintenance and facilities are all still challenges for the Afghan air force even with the brunt of U.S. military support still in Afghanistan. Maintaining the planes will get harder once the U.S. leaves by the end of 2014.

The maintenance might not get much of the attention, but that will likely be a key determinant if the Afghans can operate the Super Tucanos effectively. The Afghan military has had a hard enough time supplying spare parts for Humvees.

Plenty of "what if's" surround the Afghan military in 2015. In the midst of that uncertainty will be the arrival of a fleet of Super Tucanos that U.S. tax payers will have spent $427 million at a time defense budgets are getting awfully tight.

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