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Air Force Abandons Sole Source Nuke Helos Deal

Posted by Colin Clark on

Air Force photo

Air Force UH-1N helicopter during an emergency drill.

With legislators demanding open competition for new helicopters to carry security teams to far-flung missile silos in an emergency, the Air Force has bowed to congressional pressure.

Sikorsky had been hopeful of a $1.4 billion sole-source deal to replace the aging UH-1N helicopters, whose poor performance in counterterrorism drills had the Air Force saying it needed to bypass the normal competitive process and buy replacements in a hurry. Sikorsky stood ready to sell UH-60 Black Hawks.

Air Force Global Strike Command has said the Hueys are too slow and lack the necessary range to handle the critical nuclear security mission.

In an email to a dozen lawmakers who had pressed for competition, the Air Force said the service  “is moving forward with full-and-open competition for replacement of the entire UH-1N fleet.” Procurement quantities, schedule, cost, and additional program details “will be finalized when the acquisition strategy is approved in the coming months,” the talking points say.

Confirming this, Sen. Steve Daines today announced that the Air Force “will be going with the slowest proposed route” to replace the Vietnam-era UH-1Ns that provide security for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The Montana senator had met with Air Force Secretary Deborah James. Daines argued in a May 5 letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter that National Guard HH-60M helos could be used immediately.

This should open the door to Finmeccanica’s AgustaWestland, which has pressed for an open competition. The best known proposals, aside from the Blackhawks, include Airbus’s UH-72 Lakota and AgustaWestland’s AW139M.

The arguments for an open competition were pretty powerful. First, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has made very public his mistrust of sole-source awards. Also, one dozen lawmakers penned a letter we obtained last month arguing that the Air Force had known for years that it needed a replacement but had not bought one — undermining the case for haste.

Six members of the House Armed Services Committee signed the letter: Republicans Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Doug Lamborn( Colo.), Frank Lobiondo (NJ), Austin Scott (Ga.), and Bill Shuster (Penn.), as well as Pennsylvania Democrat Robert Brady. Also signing were six legislators who don’t sit on the HASC: Brendan Boyle (Penn.), Ryan Costello (Penn.), Blake Farenthold (Tex.), Michelle Grisham (N.M.), Patrick Meehan (Penn.), and Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.).

A source close to the program notes that the Blackhawk costs up to $35 million, whereas other aircraft that would compete for this contract are half the price to acquire. Also, Blackhawks costs more than $5,000/hour to operate compared to $1,500 for some of the other likely competitors.

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