Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Embraer have delivered the first A-29 Super Tucano to the Air Force, with company officials pledging Embraer's Jacksonville, Florida, facility will produce the remainder of its order on time.

The delivery was made Thursday at that facility. On hand were military officials from the US and Afghanistan, including Maj. Gen. Abdul Wahab Wardak, commander of the Afghan Air Force, which will be the final customer for the light attack propeller planes.

Delivery of the A-29 marks the start of filling the Light Air Support (LAS) program contract for the Pentagon. While the plane is new for the US, there are over 200 Super Tucanos on order around the world, more than 170 of which have been delivered, according to Embraer figures.

The LAS contract was developed by the Pentagon to supply Afghanistan's military with 20 planes, which should ensure air superiority in the country after the majority of US forces leave. Because the contract is a foreign military sale, Nevada-based SNC and Brazil-based Embraer deliver the planes to the Air Force, which then passes them on to the Afghan military.

Training for the Afghan military will take place at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. SNC and Embraer employees will begin training US Air Force instructors at Moody next month; those instructors will then train the Afghan pilots and maintainers who are scheduled to arrive early next year.

In the meantime, the companies plan on delivering two planes a month through next summer.

Company officials highlighted the importance of getting the A-29 to the Afghan military as quickly as possible during a Sept. 24 phone call.

"A country with the size and geography of Afghanistan places a premium on air support, and this is an airplane that is uniquely qualified to provide it in it that environment," said Taco Gilbert, a former USAF general who is now a vice-president at SNC.

Asked whether he thought the A-29 would fit into anti-militant activities, such as ongoing events in Iraq and Syria, Gilbert said, "I think this is an airplane that is designed for that mission.

"It is well placed for the demands of the counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency fight that so many of the nations in the CENTCOM area face," he added. "It is very versatile, it is low-cost to acquire and operate but exceptionally capable in that area."

The contract itself is relatively small by Pentagon standards, just $427 million, with a maximum amount of $950 million over the life of the contract. But the dollar value belies the intense fight that went into the LAS contract award, something Gilbert acknowledged by saying he was happy his team "persevered."

In 2012, the Air Force selected the A-29 as the best fit for the program. Beechcraft, which was pushing its AT-6 turboprop, challenged the decision, both with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and in court, and the Air Force decided to recompete before either case reached a ruling. In the new competition, USAF officials were directed to ignore all testing and information provided in the original competition.

After further deliberation, the Air Force again selected the Super Tucano on Feb. 27, 2013. Beechcraft soon filed a new challenge with the GAO, demanding an investigation into why the service decided to pick the more expensive Super Tucano.

The challenge triggered an automatic stop-work order on the contract while GAO entered into a 100-day evaluation period. To further complicate matters, the Air Force announced in March 2013 that it would override the freeze "in order to honor a critical and time-sensitive U.S. commitment to provide air support capability to the Afghanistan Air Force."

Finally, on June 19, 2013, the GAO ruled in favor of the Air Force's selection.

Beechcraft had also launched a public relations war on the Hill, urging lawmakers not to allow a "foreign-made" plane to be procured over an American design, an argument that gained significant traction despite plans to build the A-29 inside the US.

"We're very proud to be building the aircraft here in the United States and we're very pleased we're able to support so many jobs in the high-tech arena," Gilbert said, noting that the Jacksonville facility has 72 full-time employees and another 60-plus part time workers.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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