U.S. Air Force defends Afghan plane contract award

WASHINGTON Mon Mar 11, 2013 11:43am EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Monday defended a decision to award a contract for 20 light attack planes for Afghanistan to U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corp and its Brazilian partner Embraer SA (EMBR3.SA) after scrapping an earlier contract to the companies.

Competitor Beechcraft Corp said it was protesting the $428 million contract.

"We are confident that this decision is well supported and that the ... proposals were fully and fairly evaluated consistent with the evaluation criteria in the solicitation," said Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick. He had no immediate comment on whether the Air Force would issue a stop-work order.

Beechcraft, formerly known as Hawker Beechcraft, said on Friday it would protest the decision, which followed a new competition launched in May 2012 after the Air Force discovered problems with its handling of an initial $355 million contract award to Sierra Nevada and Embraer in December 2011.

The new protest is the latest chapter in the saga of the politically charged military procurement. Brazilian officials expressed dismay last year when the original award to Embraer was withdrawn, and political fallout from the case also seeped into the U.S. presidential election campaign last year.

The Air Force scrapped its earlier award to Sierra Nevada after it found "deficiencies in the process and documentation that could not confirm the adequacy of the previous decision in favor of SNC," Gulick said.

On Monday, he said the latest award to Sierra Nevada and Embraer involved "a new evaluation team, internal and external advisers and a new source selection authority."

The Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency that oversees federal procurement challenges, has up to 100 days to decide the matter.

Beechcraft emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month. The aircraft maker said in a statement that the Air Force decision puts 1,400 jobs in jeopardy in Kansas, where it is based, and in other states.

Beechcraft Chief Executive Bill Boisture last week said the company could not understand how the Air Force could justify spending over 40 percent, or $125 million, more for the Embraer planes.

In a statement on Friday, Embraer and Sierra Nevada said the Air Force weighed pricing, mission capability and past performance in deciding the latest contest.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Jeffrey Benkoe)