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Beechcraft's Bid Was Higher Risk: Air Force

Beechcraft Corp.'s bid to supply light-attack aircraft for the Afghan military was cheaper but more of a risk than a competing offer from Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer SA, the U.S. Air Force concluded, according to a new report.

Beechcraft's newly designed AT-6 aircraft had a higher technical risk than the A-29 Super Tucano, made by Sierra Nevada's Brazilian subcontractor Embraer, according to a copy of the legal decision released today by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress which arbitrates contract disputes.

The office earlier this month denied Beechcraft's latest protest of the Air Force's decision to award Sierra Nevada a contract to provide an initial 20 light-attack planes to the Afghan air force. The contract is valued at $427 million and may be worth $950 million over five years.

"We find it distressing, frankly, that the Air Force selected a more expensive, less capable, foreign manufactured airplane with weapons and systems that are unfamiliar to and outside the control of the U.S. military," Beechcraft Chief Executive Officer Bill Boisture fumed last week during a news conference at the Paris Air Show.

The Air Force determined that because Beechcraft's AT-6 was designed to have a gross takeoff weight of 10,000 pounds -- significantly more than the 7,000 pounds for the aircraft on which it's based -- the company was unlikely to achieve military certification within the necessary time period, according to the report.

As a result of that finding and others, the Air Force gave the AT-6 a risk rating of "high" in the aircraft technical requirements category, while the A-29 received a rating of "low." Otherwise, the service scored the two aircraft the same in mission performance, even though the overall cost of Beechcraft's proposal was significantly lower.

The Air Force estimated the total cost of the AT-6 purchase at $479 million and that of the A-29 at $615 million, according to the document.

Boisture said the A-29 may also be at risk of not meeting certification in time. "We question whether the Embraer aircraft when made with its foreign made weapons can be certified to the U.S. military standards in time to meet the mission-capability requirements of the contract," he said at the show. "But time will tell." RELATED VIDEO: Paris Air Show Spotlight: Beechcraft The Air Force had re-opened the competition after Beechcraft in 2011 protested the previous decision to the GAO and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The service subsequently discovered mistakes with the acquisition paperwork and agreed to cancel the contract.

This time around, both the office and the court denied Beechcraft's challenge, which was based on the evaluation of its own proposal, the evaluation of Sierra Nevada's proposal and the agency's best-value trade-off decision, according to GAO.

"Both the court and the GAO have rendered their rulings," Boisture said. "While we will abide by them, obviously, we disagree with them."

The company has nevertheless identified several potential international buyers of the light-attack aircraft, according to Boisture, who didn't elaborate. The firm intends to build 20 to 24 of the AT-6 once a partner is finalized, he said.

John Gibson, president of Beechcraft's global mission support unit, said he was disappointed by the Air Force’s decision, but fully intends to find a launch partner for the aircraft soon. He said the market remains strong for a plane like the AT-6 in the regions such as South America, the Middle East and parts of North Africa.

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