Will Obama and DOD Get Light Air Support Right this Time?

By George Landrith

President Barack Obama, who spoke at length about job creation during his State of the Union address, would be well served to consider the economic benefits the country would already be enjoying had his administration not grossly mismanaged the Light Air Support (LAS) contract the first time around. Now, as the Air Force once again prepares to award this contract for aircraft crucial to our Afghanistan exit strategy, our attention is once again focused on their decision. Perhaps most concerning is the evidence uncovered during a legal review of the initial award indicating outright bias and poor judgment on the part of contracting officials. Let us hope the Air Force gets it right this time. Both our national security and our economic health will be impacted by the decision.

The LAS contract is an important component of the effort to build a stronger, independent Afghanistan that will have the equipment necessary to take over its own defense from U.S. forces. In late 2011, the American aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft was abruptly and incorrectly disqualified from the bidding process for the contract without notice. Almost immediately thereafter, the Air Force awarded the LAS contract to Brazilian-owned Embraer by way of their systems integrator – the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

It was a startling decision because Hawker Beechcraft is a longstanding and proven partner to our military airmen and women. Additionally, awarding the contract to Hawker Beechcraft, would have bolstered 1,400 long-term high-paying and skilled jobs in the U.S. while Embraer would have created only a few dozen American jobs and sent the vast majority of the jobs to Embraer’s headquarters in Brazil. Outsourcing the manufacturing of our defense equipment and technology to Brazil could weaken our long-term national security interests. It also weakens our economy.  

The Air Force tossed out the initial contract award last February and restarted the selection process after an investigation cited improprieties with the documentation contracting officials used to support the contract award decision. A lengthy legal challenge followed and recently resulted in a U.S. Court of Federal Claims judgment. The Air Force's own Commander Directed Investigation (CDI) exposed a fundamentally flawed, unfair and inherently biased contract selection process that favored Embraer/SNC. The court also discovered a vast amount of evidence that brings into question whether a truly competitive environment ever actually existed in the bidding process. 

Among some of the more shocking findings, the court determined that the, "Failure in the LAS source selection lies primarily with the execution by the people involved." The overwhelming evidence of bias included poorly assembled records which did not comply with the law and more expedited communications between the primary contracting officer and SNC (Embraer) even while the notice eliminating Hawker Beechcraft from consideration was sent by mail to an incorrect address. What's more, the Court found evidence that the Air Force was not cooperating and even interfered with Justice Department investigators who were examining the initial contract award. According to a recent report, the Justice Department also found that the Air Force destroyed records during the investigation.

Considering the facts, it is clear the Air Force leadership who oversaw the review and investigation, acted appropriately and correctly when it decided to terminate the initial contract award and begin anew. Unfortunately, their handling of the LAS contract thus far has resulted in a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources and delayed the delivery of vital aircraft to service members on the front lines. Additionally, the delay has had serious economic consequences given that the time wasted over the last year could have been spent supporting America's manufacturing base had Hawker Beechcraft rightfully been awarded the contract. 

As the Air Force nears a final decision on the LAS contract within the coming weeks, I hope they have fairly and completely considered the proposals before them. Likewise, I hope they appropriately value the importance of contracting with a reliable and proven partner and impact of manufacturing these planes here at home – where these jobs are needed.

George C. Landrith is the president and CEO of Frontiers of Freedom

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