Big Cronyism In The Air Force’s Big Safari Program
There is a “revolving door culture and self-dealing at Big Safari,” stated North Carolina Republican Congressmen Ted Budd and Walter Jones in a July 12 letter to the Secretary of the Air Force. Recent American military assistance to Kenya and Yemen involving Big Safari, a specialized Air Force acquisition program, raises disturbing questions about contracting insiders taking the American taxpayer for a ride.
“When the Air Force has an urgent operational need, it typically works to buy equipment through a secretive acquisition office known as Big Safari,” Defense One has written of this program, created in 1952. Big Safari often awards contracts without competitive bidding through legal exceptions, notes a former Big Safari commander, Colonel Edward Topps, which “allows us to do things quick and secretively.” This kind of secrecy has—with good reason—led Baltimore University School of Law contracting law expert Charles Tiefer to speculate that these practices make Big Safari a “rogue agency.”
As Congressman Budd relates in the Washington Examiner, abuse in Big Safari’s contracting ways has surfaced in a 2013 procurement case involving two Air Force majors assisting the Yemeni air force in its fight against Houthi rebels. With the backing of senior special operations officers at the Pentagon, the majors recommended over various options that Yemen receive four Archangel weaponized border patrol aircraft built by the North Carolina firm IOMAX. Budd notes that IOMAX “has built nearly 50 of these aircraft and dropped more than 4,000 bombs on ISIS targets in the Middle East” in the service of countries like the United Arab Emirates.
Nonetheless, Big Safari awarded the contract without competition to L3, a New York firm that had never built the type of plane the Yemenis needed and charged $15 million more than IOMAX’s offer. L3’s planes, arriving months late under the contract and after the fall of the Yemeni government, were so poorly manufactured that the United States Air force rejected them. However, the Big Safari contracting official who steered the Yemeni deal to L3 later took a position there, according to Congressmen Budd and Jones’ letter to the Secretary of the Air Force.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is now investigating how L3’s revolving door turned again in a contract involving Kenya with a May 18 letter to the Secretary of the Air Force. As Budd notes in the Washington Examiner, the American government brokered a $418 million arms deal with Kenya for 12 planes of the type Yemen previously needed in order to fight the Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab. Once again, Big Safari awarded the contract to L3’s novices while IOMAX, which claimed an ability to underbid L3 by $130 million, only learned about the contract after its release.
Budd notes that such sums are not marginal, considering that Department of Defense 2015 aid to Kenya was $107 million. Kenya, an American ally, also spent perhaps over $15 million to access the American acquisition system. This entails legal and regulatory duties to procure Kenya’s planes as if the American government were buying them.
The United States Air Force owes American taxpayers some answers. The security of America’s allies, their relationship with the United States, and millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake. Any revolving doors between Big Safari and L3 must close.
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