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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Past performance as responsiveness issue

In many of the posts on this blog, I have referred to past performance as a measure of prospective contractor responsibility. It may at times be the case that past performance is a measure of responsiveness. Almost always, that should be when the subject of the test of past performance is the thing solicited (including when the "thing" is a particular service, such a one in which a particular license or other certificate of qualification is necessary), not the bidder or offeror. This article is one such example. It involves the solicitation of a light, armed aircraft, to be purchased by the US Air Force for an allied country's services. One bidder is from a state, Kansas, that offers a full court press of its "Hill" representatives. The other is to be produced in a state, Florida, but is based on the design and license of Brazil, a US ally. The standard to be selected here is "best value", not lowest cost.

As always, read the story at the link for the full enchilada. This rendition is just an appetizer.

Beechcraft Protests Light Air Support Award; Kansas Lawmakers On Warpath
Depending on how you count, this marks the second or third time the military has tried to buy Super Tucanos (from Florida) only to run afoul of Beechcraft and its backers (from Kansas).

The Air Force announced that Sierra Nevada would provide 20 aircraft plus spare parts, training, and other support for $427 million. Beechcraft's bid for its AT-6 Texan II was about 30 percent less, $297 million. Beechcraft and the AT-6 scored "excellent" in five of five criteria for "mission capability," criteria ranging from the technical performance of the aircraft to the kind of training programs the company could provide. The Super Tucano only got "excellent" on four of five.

But that's only part of the story and of the scoring system. It's entirely possible for Beechcraft to get more "excellent" marks and still lose overall.

the AT-6 aircraft is still in prototype: While Beechcraft has built thousands of T-6 trainers for the US and its allies, the specific variant on offer -- the armed ground-attack version, the AT-6 -- is significantly different and not entirely proven. Competitor Sierra Nevada is hardly risk-free either, because their Florida factory has yet to build a single aircraft, but they would be making the exact same plane already mass-produced in Brazil and in service with nine nations. So there are both business and technological reasons the Air Force might have rated the Beechcraft AT-6 as higher risk.

In fact, alongside "mission capability" and price, the Air Force applies a whole third set of criteria, "past performance." The Super Tucano boasts an extensive track record of service in countries from Colombia, where it's seen combat against drug traffickers, to Mauritania. The basic T-6 has an even longer track record as the standard trainer for both the US Air Force and Navy, but only two prototypes of the specific AT-6 combat variant even exist.

If the US were choosing an aircraft for itself, the AT-6 would be a slam dunk, because it's the big brother of something the American military knows and loves. But these planes are being bought on behalf of the fledging Afghan air force, and Afghanistan's capabilities are a lot more like Mauritania's than America's. So the Super Tucano's "past performance" track record looks both stronger and more relevant than the AT-6's.

Beechcraft backers argue that the administration is tilting the scales to appease Brazil, noting that Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called Brazil's defense minister to offer his congratulations within hours of the 2012 award. Beechcraft mobilized a massive "buy American" campaign in favor of its aircraft, even though Sierra Nevada insists it would build its Brazilian-designed airplane in its (yet to be completed) Florida factory.

So the Light Air Support contract has been a rolling, multi-year disaster, a microcosm of everything that's wrong with the military acquisitions system: meddling by politicians, incompetence by bureaucrats, and legal wrangling by the contractors. (Sierra Nevada filed suit itself at one point). Meanwhile US troops and their Afghan allies are without a lightweight, low-altitude air support plane that commanders first said was necessary in August 2009.

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