WASHINGTON: Just as the Air Force’s long-delayed Light Attack Aircraft buy seemed to be actually moving forward, Texas-based Air Tractor has smacked the program with a protest — apparently in hopes of getting another chance for its militarized version of its AT-802 crop duster.
Gen. Arnold Bunch, head of Air Force Materiel Command, told reporters today that Air Tractor has re-entered a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the Air Force’s requests for proposals (RFPs) to Textron Aviation for the AT-6 and Sierra Nevada Corporation/Embraer Defense & Security for the A-29 to continue experimentation. “I have one active on both the AT-6 and the A-29,” Bunch said, referring to Air Tractor’s action.
According to the GAO website, the new Air Tractor protest was filed on Nov. 1. As reported by colleague Rachel Cohen in August, the company’s original protest was filed on June 6 only to be dismissed by GAO on June 28, after the Air Force decided to take corrective action. Air Tractor had offered the AT-802L Longsword back in 2017, but lost out to the AT-6 and the A-29.
Air Tractor’s website currently features four AT-802 variants, but none of them are the AT-802L. Instead, the plane being touted for light attack is a the multi-mission AT-802U, which the firm says can also undertake strike missions enabled by intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) capabilities, signals intelligence, border/maritime patrol and remote supply/transport.
An Air Tractor representative told Breaking D today that only the company president, Jim Hirsch, could respond to our request for comment — and that, unfortunately, he was away at conference and could not be reached.
Bunch, for his part, seemed a bit puzzled over the rationale behind the bid protest, noting a key deficiency in Air Tractor’s initial offering: “The aircraft I remember seeing from them did not have ejection seats.” The issue of ejection seats has been a long-standing Air Force concern.
He was, however, quick to stress Air Tractor’s “absolute” right to submit a protest.
Richard Aboulafia, aircraft market specialist at Teal Group, told Breaking D today that he too was baffled by the bid protest. “The stakes are so small,” he said, explaining that there isn’t exactly a booming market for this class of aircraft. Sales of Light Attack Aircraft types “of all flavors,” he said, only amount “to one or two a month since time immemorial.” Even the A-29 Super Tucano, “the most popular and successful of the bunch” has only racked up a total of a “couple hundred,” he added.
Bunch also demurred on commenting on the service’s plan for the aircraft following the initial buy. “I cannot give you a run down on the exact aircraft experimentation plan,” he said.
That said, he added that a key issue was making sure that any eventual plan took into account the needs of allies and partner countries.
The Light Attack Aircraft program has been linked to oversees sales, in part to help defray Air Force costs but also because such a plane is useful for the types of counterinsurgency operations partner nations have been involved in over the last decade. Indeed, Afghanistan and Lebanon already using the A-29 in limited numbers in such operations.
As Breaking D readers are aware, after a decade of dithering the Air Force announced late last month that it intends to buy two or three each of the AT-6 and A-29 (based on price). According to the RFP, the award is expected by the end of the year for the A-29 and in early 2020 for the AT-6.
Air Combat Command will use the AT-6 Wolverine planes at Nellis AFB in Nevada to test operational tactics and tactical network standards to improve interoperability with international partners.
Air Force Special Operations Command will take delivery of the A-29 Super Tucanos at Hurlburt Field in Florida to “develop an instructor pilot program for the Combat Aviation Advisory mission, to meet increased partner nation requests for light attack assistance,” according to the RFP.
Both the A-29 and AT-6 will be purchased with $156 million in procurement funds currently in the Air Force budget. That includes $56.7 million in reprogrammed fiscal 2018 research, development, test, and evaluation funds and $100 million in 2019 procurement funds.
However, as the buy of the AT-6 will take place in 2020 using Other Transactional Authority (OTA) money, that procurement will depend on the Air Force obtaining 2020 appropriations funds — something that is now up in the air as Congress battles over the Trump Administration’s plan to shift military construction funds to the southern border wall. Indeed, the US government is currently functioning via a second Continuing Resolution, signed by the Senate today and set to expire in mid-December as the House and Senate (and the White House) hash out the issue.