Should the US Air Force buy American or Brazilian?

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The US Air Force is looking for a supplier for Light Air Support aircraft, to be used by the Afghan Air Force and by the USAF to train other partner air forces. Award is expected this summer, and the question is whether the Air Force will pick a variant of an American-designed and -built aircraft it already uses, in the hundreds, or a Brazilian-designed aircraft that would be new to the fleet.

In 1994, the US Air Force and US Navy issued a request for proposals for a new aircraft to be used for primary pilot training to replace the T-34 and T-37 aircraft, along with the flight simulators for the new aircraft. One of the bidders was Beechcraft (then part of Raytheon); the company I worked for at the time, FlightSafety, was part of the Beechcraft team, would design and build the simulators.

T6TexanII.jpgTo be frank, I didn't think our team stood a chance. The proposed aircraft was a modification of a Swiss-designed single-engine turboprop, and the RFP required the controls and performance of a jet aircraft. But Beechcraft was able to provide jet handling and performance at a turboprop price, using technology to conceal the peculiarities of a propeller-driven aircraft from the pilot, and they won the contract.

I was part of the FlightSafety design team for the simulators for the winning aircraft, dubbed the T-6 Texan II. My job was to develop an Ada 95 framework which would connect software models of flight dynamics, engine performance, radios, instruments, hydraulic, electrical, and fuel systems, and would do so in an object-oriented way without compromising real-time performance.

The T-6 Texan II is now being used by the air forces of seven different nations, and FlightSafety Simulation in Broken Arrow has built dozens of T-6 simulators for the USAF and for Greece's Air Force. (I have no idea if any of my work is still in the simulator, or if it has all been rewritten over the years. Ada 95 lost its DOD status as a "mandatory" programming language about the time we started developing the T-6 sim.) The aircraft itself is built at the Hawker Beechcraft factory on the east side of Wichita, Kansas. It's been a good thing for our region's aviation industry.

There's also an armed version of the T-6. The AT-6 has on-board avionics (based on the system in use on the A-10C) to support surveillance, attack, and reconnaissance. Now the Air Force is looking for an aircraft to fill a light aircraft support and counterinsurgency role for the Afghan Air Force and other military partners.

The only other declared bidder, according to Aviation Week, is Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer. A U. S. company, Sierra Nevada Corp., is the prime contractor, but Embraer would supply the parts from Brazil for assembly in Jacksonville, Florida. The Light Air Support contract will be awarded this summer.

Embraer began as a government-owned aircraft manufacturer in 1969, was privatized in 1994, but the government has retained a "Golden Share" which gives the government of Brazil veto rights over:

  • change of our name and corporate purpose;
  • amendment and/or application of our logo;
  • creation and/or alteration of military programs (whether or not involving Brazil);
  • development of third party skills' in technology for military programs;
  • discontinuance of the supply of spare parts and replacement parts for military aircraft;
  • transfer of our control;
  • any amendments to the list of corporate actions over which the golden share carries veto rights, including the right of the Brazilian government to appoint one member and alternate to our Board of Directors and the right of our employees to appoint two members and their respective alternates to our Board of Directors, and to the rights conferred to the golden share; and
  • changes to certain provisions of our bylaws pertaining to voting restrictions, rights of the golden share and the mandatory tender offer requirements applicable to holders of 35% or more of our outstanding shares.

I would not want the DOD to be forced by protectionist policies to buy poorly designed and expensive equipment from American companies, but neither would I want our defense dependent on overseas companies who are subject to the whims of a sometimes-friendly, sometimes-not foreign government.

The US has a long history of taking an aircraft and creating variants to extend its use into new mission areas. (The C-130 is a great example.) Parts for one variant often can be used for other variants. A pilot or maintenance technician trained on one variant of an aircraft can quickly learn to fly or work on another.

And if that aircraft and its simulators are built by US companies, it means keeping our tax dollars in the US, supporting American high tech and manufacturing capabilities. I trust the Kansas and Oklahoma congressional delegations are aware that it would also mean high-tech and skilled manufacturing jobs for their constituents.

DISCLOSURE: I have no financial interest (direct or indirect) in the outcome of this procurement. Hat tip to John Hawkins of Right Wing News for calling the issue to my attention.

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Jay Casey Author Profile Page said:

Open the competition up to friendly (ie not the Chinese or Russians) foreign competition but make it a requirement that the manufacturing has to be done in the US. As you know, most other countries have such requirements of our companies if they want to bid on contracts in other countries. It forces our companies to transfer technology to the buying country and forces our companies to employ their people. Reciprocity goes a long way.

Roy said:

This power of the Brazil govt
"discontinuance of the supply of spare parts and replacement parts for military aircraft"
illustrates how protectionist policies when U.S. military needs are threatened differs from similar policies when private enterprise wishes are threatened.

Don't mean that the issues at stake trivial, nor that the above provides an Alexandrian Sword for an otherwise unsolvable Gordonian Knot. For by way of counterexample, making the protectionist choice reflexive may result in (and predictably, understandably has resulted in) political patronage, significant graft, bloated costs, even combat death. (Go ponder the tragedy of magnesium in B-29 carburetors, or Sherman tanks vs German Tigers).

But absent some pretty compelling counter data, I'd choose the T6.

Bob said:

The future of manned flight is fading. The flight simulator and Reaper unmanned aircraft are the future of combat aircraft.

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