MELBOURNE, Fla. — This summer, Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer will fly its A-29 Super Tucano in a demonstration for the U.S. Air Force, an event that could pave the way for a potential program of record and the company’s largest-ever sales opportunity with the U.S. military.
However, a lingering question is whether President Donald Trump’s continued push for “America first” policies could give a leg up to Embraer’s probable competition — the Wichita, Kansas-based Textron, which will fly its Scorpion jet and AT-6 turboprop plane in the demo.
During a June visit to Embraer’s business jet production line in Melbourne, Florida, executives told the company doesn’t see its Brazilian heritage as a problem for growing its defense business.
“We have a very, very strong U.S. presence,” said Gary Spulak, president of Embraer’s U.S. subsidiary, who pointed to the company’s growing footprint in the United States. Out of its $6.2 billion revenue last year, $1.4 billion came from Embraer’s U.S. business, including ongoing production of 26 Super Tucanos for Afghanistan and Lebanon under a contract with the U.S. Air Force.
Trump in April issued an executive order calling for a review of the 1933 Buy American Act, including how the Defense Department applies those standards. Whether the assessment ultimately opens the door to greater protectionism for U.S. prime contractors is still yet to be seen.
In the defense sector, the line that defines an “American product” has become ever more difficult to parse as foreign defense firms form U.S. subsidiaries and begin U.S. production lines, while U.S. defense companies do an increased amount of technological sharing with other countries.
For example, in the Air Force’s T-X program for new trainer aircraft, all four competing teams comprised a U.S. prime contractor partnered with an international defense company: Boeing and Sweden’s Saab worked together on a clean sheet design; Lockheed Martin will offer a version of Korean Aerospace Industries T-50; DRS Technologies is fronting the bid from Italian parent company Leonardo; and Sierra Nevada Corp. and Turkish Aerospace Industries have reportedly also entered the competition.
Jackson Schneider, Embraer’s executive vice president of defense and security, stressed that the Super Tucanos made in the United States are, by and large, American planes.
“We have a strong American component in the plane. We have some components that are imported from other countries, but a large part is American content, and it’s assembled in the United States in Jacksonville, [Florida],” he said June 2, adding that even more U.S. content could filter into the plane as the Air Force refines its requirements and determines what modifications could be needed.
Embraer had to prove its commitment to its U.S. footprint during the Light Air Support (LAS) competition, when the Super Tucano eventually beat out Textron’s AT-6 for a U.S. Air Force contract to supply light attack aircraft to the Afghanistan air force, Spulak said.
Much has changed since then. Spurred by growth in defense and commercial, revenues for Embraer’s U.S. business have almost doubled since the company was awarded the LAS contract in 2013. The company has a footprint in 31 states, and it has invested $105 million in its facilities since about 2009, he said.
The A-29 has also proven its worth in combat in the Middle East. So far, twelve Super Tucanos have been delivered by the Air Force to the Afghanistan military, with eight more to go.
“When we went into the original competition, we were saying we were present, we had our presence in many air forces, many combat orders,” Spulak said. “Now we have very specific evidence of the airplane in operation for this specific mission that the Air Force has designated, and the Afghans are doing this every day. So I think the product itself has to enter into the picture.”
For the light attack experiment this summer, Embraer will modify one of its A-29s with U.S. Air Force-specified communications equipment and mission systems, said Schneider, who declined to detail the configuration. Embraer’s demonstration is currently slated for August at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
The Air Force hasn’t decided whether it will transition the experiment into a formal program of record, known as OA-X, or how many aircraft it would need to meet its current requirements. A white paper by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain floated 300 planes as a potential requirement.
If that level of output is needed, Schneider said Embraer may need to expand the production facilities in Jacksonville. The current orders for Afghanistan and Lebanon run through the end of this year.
“I hope that before the end of this year, I will have the possibility to announce other contracts and to guarantee the continuance of the operations in Jacksonville,” he said.
The Super Tucano line in Brazil is currently has orders for Mali, Mauritania , Brazil and an undisclosed country. Some of that production could be transferred to Jacksonville if needed to keep the line going, he added.