U.S. Air Force overrides stop-work order on Embraer contract

WASHINGTON, March 15 Fri Mar 15, 2013 5:27pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Friday authorized U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corp and Brazilian planemaker Embraer SA to resume work on a $428 million order building 20 light attack planes for Afghanistan, despite a protest filed by the losing bidder.

The Air Force said it decided to override it's own stop-work order imposed on March 11 after a protest filed by Beechcraft Corp, "in order to honor a critical and time-sensitive U.S. commitment to provide air support capability to the Afghanistan Air Force (AAF)."

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said the military service informed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday that it planned to continue work on the contract, and not wait for a decision on the Beechcraft protest.

Friday's move by the Air Force, quickly criticized by Beechcraft, is the latest twist in the politically charged military procurement. Brazilian officials expressed dismay last year when an original December 2011 award to Sierra Nevada and Embraer was withdrawn, and political fallout from the case also seeped into the U.S. presidential election campaign last year.

The Air Force is racing to get new planes to Afghanistan and train pilots to fly them as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from the country after over a decade of war.

Stefanek said federal law allowed agencies to override mandatory stop-work orders "when it is determined to be in the best interests of the United States or unusual and compelling circumstances will not permit waiting for the GAO's decision."

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

The U.S. Air Force this week defended its decision to award the contract to Sierra Nevada and Embraer a second time, saying it was confident the decision was well supported, and that the competing proposals were fully and fairly evaluated.

Beechcraft, formerly known as Hawker Beechcraft, last week protested the contract award, 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.

Beechcraft emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month. The aircraft maker criticized the Air Force's latest move to continue work on the contract with Sierra Nevada and Embraer, calling it "misguided."

"This decision ... will lead to the loss of American jobs and substantially higher costs to American taxpayers," the company said in a statement after the Air Force decision.

It said the Air Force's decision further reduced the transparency around what it called "a very opaque (light air support) acquisition."

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