Embraer has announced it is teaming with Sierra Nevada to build the Super Tucano in Jacksonville, Florida, if the partners can win a US Air Force contract that is scheduled to be awarded in June.
Sierra Nevada's role as the US-based prime contractor in Embraer's bid was revealed after both competitors - also including the Lockheed Martin/Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 - completed flight trials in the evaluation process for the light air support (LAS) contract.
The programme will supply up to 20 aircraft to serve as counter-insurgency trainers and fighters for Afghan pilots. The USAF also plans to buy 15 aircraft to serve as trainers for its own pilots, who could then be assigned to foreign "partners" fighting insurgents or terrorists.
Both competitors think the contract may ultimately be worth more than 35 aircraft, however.
In a 31 January briefing, Acir Padilha, vice-president of marketing and sales for Embraer's defence and security unit, predicted that overall sales could rise to 55 aircraft. Derek Hess, Hawker Beechcraft's director for AT-6 programmes, believes the market could be even larger.
The USAF launched the LAS contract in response to an emerging need to train pilots for counter-insurgency missions, which involve supporting friendly troops at close range, escorting convoys and providing armed reconnaissance over a wide area.
It follows the USAF's acquisition of the MC-12 Liberty - a Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER modified as a medium-altitude intelligence-gathering platform. The idea for "Project Liberty" came from the US Army's medium-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance system (MARSS), which supplied the King Air to the Iraqi air force.
Sierra Nevada was the army's contractor for the MARSS programme, and has now switched sides by teaming up with Embraer to offer the Super Tucano to the USAF.
The Super Tucano faces tough competition. Hawker Beechcraft is widely perceived as a US-based manufacturer, and is delivering hundreds of unarmed T-6As to the USAF and US Navy under the joint primary aircraft training system contract.
Sierra Nevada notes that USAF officials did not allow it to demonstrate the Super Tucano's ability to manoeuvre aerobatically with an unbalanced weapons load, which it considers to be a key performance advantage over the AT-6.
Meanwhile, Hawker Beechcraft is preparing for the next step in a separate AT-6 demonstration for the Air National Guard funded by the US Congress. The type will soon demonstrate delivering precision weapons for the first time, following tests of its combat sensors performed last October, Hess says.
Embraer touts the Super Tucano's flexibility with precision weapon load-outs as another key advantage, with 133 stores configurations already qualified, Padilha says.