The U.S. Air Force has won a key victory in its efforts to equip Afghan forces with A-29 Super Tucano light air support (LAS) aircraft.

In a 32-page decision released June 25, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) upheld the Air Force’s A-29 contract award to Sierra Nevada Corp., denying a protest by losing bidder Beechcraft Defense. The GAO said the Air Force was justified in concluding that Beechcraft’s offering, though less expensive than Sierra Nevada’s, was also riskier.

The Air Force “provided a reasonable explanation of why Sierra Nevada’s higher-priced proposal was viewed as superior to Beechcraft’s proposal, and explained why the lower risk associated with Sierra Nevada’s proposed approach warranted payment of a price premium,” the GAO wrote.

The GAO’s “decision is a win for the American warfighters and our allies in Afghanistan who urgently need this light air support capacity to fulfill our mission there,” said Taco Gilbert, vice president of integrated tactical solutions for Sierra Nevada’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance business.

During the competition, Wichita, Kan.-based Beechcraft proposed the AT-6C, a derivative of the T-6 trainer aircraft that the Air Force has flown for more than 12 years. Sierra Nevada, of Sparks, Nev., offered the A-29, which is made by Brazil-based subcontractor Embraer S.A. and has been used by Brazilian forces since 2003. In February, the Air Force awarded a contract for 20 aircraft to Sierra Nevada, with deliveries scheduled to begin in July 2014.

Although Sierra Nevada’s $615 million bid was $136 million more than Beechcraft’s, the Air Force was concerned that the AT-6C’s maximum gross takeoff weight was more than 40 percent greater than the weight of the structurally certified T-6 on which it was based. The Air Force judged that the weight difference could complicate and prolong the AT-6C’s airworthiness certification process. The GAO found this concern to be valid.

In response to the GAO decision, Beechcraft renewed its criticism of the contract award, contending the Air Force chose a less capable aircraft. It urged Congress to block the Air Force from adding to the 20-aircraft order. And despite the loss, Beechcraft said it expects growing defense budgets in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa to fuel demand for its T-6 trainers and AT-6 light attack aircraft.

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Marc Selinger is a journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @marcselinger.