A US Air Force contract for a fixed-wing light mobility aircraft (LiMA) has attracted interest from companies based in Australia, New Zealand and Spain, but each faces a tough challenge to overcome a homegrown favourite.

The Cessna 208 Grand Caravan is widely considered the USAF's first choice for the contract to supply up to 60 aircraft to the Afghan National Army Air Corps.

The USAF officially notified industry about the LiMA requirement in July, with entry into service beginning in Fiscal 2012.

Meanwhile, Alliant Techsystems (ATK) has already delivered at least 11 Cessna 208s for delivery to the Iraq Air Force under a separate contract awarded by the USAF. As of November, ATK's deliveries included five trainers, three reconnaissance aircraft equipped with the L-3 Wescam MX-15 sensor and three strike aircraft each loaded with two Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

For the Afghan contract, it's not clear if the USAF wants more than a cargo aircraft. The capability request for information issued on 27 July says the selected aircraft would perform a variety of missions, including carrying cargo and personnel, airdrop and casualty evacuation.

Cessna confirms that it has responded to the USAF's request for information, but declines to offer details about its bid.

L-3 Communications has teamed with New Zealand-based Pacific Aerospace Ltd to offer the P-750 extremely short takeoff and landing (XSTOL), a low-wing aircraft with a 244m (800ft) takeoff roll.

"The P-750 stacks up pretty well" against the Caravan, a L-3 spokesman said, adding, "in terms of its short takeoff and landing capability, as well as its cost". L-3 declined to identify the P-750's actual cost.

Another acknowledged competitor is the EADS CASA 212, a twin-engine turboprop. Although the CASA 212 is a much larger aircraft than the Caravan, the company believes it can persuade the USAF that it needs a more capable aircraft.

More companies, such as Sikorsky and Hawker Beechcraft, have also registered as interested bidders with the USAF.

The opportunity to sell aircraft to the Afghans also has attracted interest from companies that have not yet entered production on new designs. These include Stavatti Heavy Industries and Explorer Aircraft.

Source: Flight International