Amy Butler | AWIN First
After years of bitter competitions, Embraer has finally established a U.S. foothold for production of defense systems stateside with the rollout of its first A-29 Super Tucano for sale to the U.S. Air Force.
Embraer is teamed with Sierra Nevada Corp. to deliver 20 Super Tucanos to the service, which will then transfer them to Afghan forces. The team is also training U.S. instructor pilots and maintainers, who will provide training to Afghan forces. Training in Afghanistan is slated for early next year.
This was the company’s first successful venture into the U.S. defense market. Embraer previously won a contract with Lockheed Martin to supply ERJ 145s for intelligence aircraft; the deal cratered once it became evident the platforms were too small to contain the equipment required for the service.
The company was also the winner of a 2011 competition with the Super Tucano for what the Air Force calls the Light Air Support (LAS) program. However, rival Beechcraft protested, having been dismissed from the competition, and the service ultimately conducted another duel. Sierra Nevada and Embraer again won and, after yet another protest, the team was pronounced the victor.
Embraer has dedicated a facility in Jacksonville, Florida, to the Super Tucano final assembly work for the U.S. Air Force; work will also continue on its line in Brazil for other customers.
“It is a natural thing to incorporate that into the Jacksonville operation,” said Gary Spulak, president of Embraer Aircraft Holding Inc. Parts for the A-29 are supplied by more than 100 companies in 21 states and “instead of shipping U.S. parts to Brazil for assembly, they ship to Florida” now for the U.S. aircraft, says Taco Gilbert, vice president of Sierra Nevada’s tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance business.
The deal for $427.5 million – covering 20 aircraft as well as training, support and spares – was anticipated to be the first tranche of work. However, amid constant protests from Beechcraft and declining budgets, the Air Force has not opted for a second buy. But team officials expect the Afghan forces to buy the systems in the future.
They say there is a global market as high as $3.5 billion that could be tapped for less wealthy nations seeking simple armed support for border protection as well as wealthy nations – such as the U.S. – in need of an inexpensive complement to its costly F-35s and F-22s.
This is a pitch also being made by Textron AirLand, with its newly designed Scorpion, a twin-engine jet aircraft aimed at the light-attack and fast-jet trainer market. Gilbert said the A-29’s historical operating cost is $1,000 per hour; Scorpion’s is advertised at $3,000.
Embraer’s plant opened in February, and the first A-29 has already been accepted by the Air Force. Eight aircraft are on the line in various stages of final assembly, Spulak said. The final aircraft is slated for delivery in the summer of 2015.
The initial deliveries were slated for late 2013, but slipped due to the Beechcraft protest. Each aircraft requires up to 80 days in final assembly, Gilbert says.
Meanwhile, Spulak and Gilbert are optimistic that foreign sales will emerge. They declined to discuss interested parties due to customer privacy concerns. Because the Brazilian assembly line is continuing work, a lull in activity in Florida will not cause an interruption in the supply chain, Spulak says.