U.S. Air Force sees Afghan plane issue as "isolated"
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. Air Force weapons buyer said on Friday he believed the paperwork problem that prompted him to cancel a $355 million contract for 20 planes to be sold to Afghanistan was an "isolated situation."
David Van Buren, acting assistant secretary for acquisition, said an investigation was still under way, but he did not believe the case revealed a systemic problem with the Air Force acquisition process.
"It's my belief from any information I know, subject to further analysis by the commander-directed investigation ... that this is an isolated situation," Van Buren told Reuters in an interview at his Pentagon office.
Citing inadequate documentation, the Air Force last week abruptly canceled a contract with privately held Sierra Nevada and Brazilian planemaker Embraer, for 20 light attack planes to be sold to Afghanistan. The deal was worth up to $1 billion, if all options were exercised.
The Air Force said it discovered the problem while preparing for a lawsuit filed by competitor Hawker Beechcraft, which had been disqualified from the competition in November 2011 because it's AT-6 plane was deemed "technically insufficient."
The Air Force hopes to determine how to redo the competition within the next week, said spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy.
The Air Force is struggling to rebuild its reputation after a spate of high-profile procurement problems in the last decade on programs ranging from refueling tankers to new search and rescue planes. Top Air Force officials have described the latest incident as embarrassing and disappointing.
On Thursday, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said the issue could result in Pentagon acquisition taking control of Air Force acquisitions again, as they did after a major procurement scandal in the mid-2000s.
He said acting Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall would make a recommendation on the oversight issue after reviewing the facts of the Sierra Nevada case, and whether it involved systemic issues or individual error.
AIR FORCE OVERSIGHT
Van Buren told Reuters on Friday that he had spoken with Kendall and there was "no contemplation" at this point of removing the Air Force's oversight of the competition.
Loren Thompson, analyst with the Lexington Institute, said the incident had clearly marred the Air Force's already tarnished reputation.
"There have been a series of mistakes by Air Force acquisition over the last year that raise doubts about whether it has fixed the problems that led to the loss of control over its programs," he said, citing an incident last year in which Air Force officials mistakenly sent proprietary data to the wrong companies during bidding for the $35 billion tanker contract.
"There's just a pattern here of uneven professionalism that creates doubt," he said.
Van Buren, a industry executive who took over as the Air Force's top acquisition executive in April 2009, said the service had "really worked hard to correct the situation" and implement a transparent and regimented procurement process.
The service handled some 130,000 contract actions each year, and government auditors only upheld protests against one or two, he said.
Van Buren, who is retiring at the end of March, said major acquisition decisions were vetted by officials from other military services or the Pentagon's acquisition office.
He said he also never served as the "source selection authority" on Air Force acquisition programs to ensure that there were "checks and balances" in the system.
The identity of the selecting official is never disclosed, to protect the process and shield that individual from any "market pressures," he said.
He said major decisions were generally approved by senior military leaders at the one- to three-star level, or their civilian equivalents. In rare cases, he said, decisions were made by a military official of colonel rank.
In the Sierra Nevada case, Van Buren declined to identify the selection authority, but said it was made by someone of colonel rank or higher, or their civilian equivalent. He said the decision was reviewed by "a number of very senior people."
Sierra Nevada is pressing the Air Force to redo the contest quickly, without lowering the requirements set for the original competition, from which the Hawker AT-6 plane was disqualified.
"No amount of documentation will correct the AT-6's fundamental shortfalls," said Taco Gilbert, vice president of business development for Sierra Nevada.
No comment was immediately available from Hawker.
Hawker insists that it's AT-6 plane is the most capable, affordable and sustainable light attack aircraft on the market. Sierra Nevada says the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano it offered is combat-proven and in use by six air forces around the world.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)
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