What Were They Thinking?
The mystery surrounding the Air Force's abrupt dismissal of Hawker Beechcraft's AT-6B as a candidate for its potential light attack aircraft invites speculation since the Air Force itself isn't talking. In fact, the Government Accountability Office seems to support the Air Force's lack of accountability in handing the $1 billion contract to Embraer and its Super Tucano. The GAO, whose mandate is to ensure that everything is on the up and up with government spending, has refused to even look into a set of circumstances that would seem to warrant some scrutiny.
By all accounts, the Embraer and the T-6 have a lot in common and each do some things better, or differently, than the other. It's about what you'd expect in a competition of this nature and it seems like the Air Force could have justified the choice of either at the end of a fair and comprehensive evaluation. Instead, the Air Force went out of its way to exclude the T-6 from the competition, seemingly within hours of awarding the deal to Embraer, and a political stench is now rising as lawyers circle overhead.
At its most basic level, it's hard to imagine the Air Force cares much which airplane it gets as long as it does the job. In fact, from the Air Force's perspective, assuming everything else is roughly equal, the edge would seem to go to Hawker Beech since the Air Force and the Navy already have T-6s in their inventory as a successful trainer. The continuity in maintenance, repair and training should save the military the money that inevitably is spent in introducing a new type.
So, that leaves political interference as a logical possibility for the Air Force's odd behavior and that's where the guessing games get interesting.
Given the jobs agenda set out by the administration and the growing America-first sentiment in the unemployment-ravaged country, what could possibly be the political motive for giving this contract to a Brazilian company? Well, the truth is that in the four-year horizon of politics, the Embraer deal is a net creator of jobs because 50 positions will be needed in Jacksonville, where the planes will be assembled from parts made in Brazil. It's a good bet that many of those jobs will be filled with NASA workers laid off with the demise of the space shuttle program. Hawker Beech's T-6 line is busy until 2015 when the last of its training orders will be filled and the Wichita company is no doubt looking for more buyers to keep it going beyond then.
Then there's Brazil itself. Would it surprise you to know that by some estimates Brazil has surpassed the UK as the world's sixth biggest economy? Did you know that it has about 700 aircraft in its Air Force and will likely have a frontline force of Gripen fighters before long? it also boasts an aircraft carrier and an active nuclear submarine development program. Clearly, the presence of an emerging power on the U.S.'s southern flank deserves some attention and this may be as much a foreign policy statement as it is a procurement program.
It's also possible, but not likely, that Hawker Beech's tough-talking CEO Bill Boisture's penchant for speaking his mind in front of reporters has something to do with this. As we reported from NBAA last October, Boisture launched a partisan tirade against the Obama administration, blaming its public disdain for business aviation for much of the industry's problems. Did Boisture's attack ricochet and hit him in the foot? Again, it's not likely his intemperate comments scotched his company's chances on this contract but I'd wager they didn't help, either.
Same Movie, Different Players?
Hawker Beechcraft's tiff with the Air Force over the use of its AT-6B light attack trainer is a movie I've seen before. This sort of thing isn't exactly unprecedented.
The first military aircraft program I wrote about was the A-10, which was built by Fairchild Republic in both New York and Maryland, where I was a news reporter. The A-10 program was perking along to a final contract this was in the mid-1970swhen a couple of challengers came along after the initial proposal had been floated and performance specs established.
One was based on the P-51 Mustang. As I recall, the airplane was an outgrowth of what had been called the Cavalier Mustang, the attempt of a Florida newspaper publisher named David Lindsay to transform surplus P-51s into executive aircraft. This is not quite as improbable as it seems, since in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were a lot more P-51s floating around than there are now. As this project developed, the Air Force contracted with the company to build what became the Cavalier F-51D, which the service thought could do the very light attack/countinsurgency role Beech is now proposing for the AT-6B. It had the export market in mind.
That project kind of muddled around and eventually Cavalier fitted a Rolls-Royce Dart to an improved Mustang airframe, but it fizzled as a business plan and the company closed in the early 1970s. But the project re-emerged in the mid-1970s as the Piper PA-48 Enforcer. That's right, Piper.
Like Beech, Piper lobbied congress to consider the Enforcer, at one time pitching it as an alternative to the A-10. I can't recall if lawsuits were threatened, but probably not.
By then, the airplane had little in common with the Mustang, but it kind of resembles a taildragger version of the AT6-B, probably with similar capabilities. Piper got the Air Force to fund a couple of airframes, but after tests, it decided not to buy them and Piper's attempt at being a tactical aircraft manufacturer ended.
Hawker Beechcraft may end up in the same place. If it does, it won't be the first.