No more surprises

This first appeared as a Comment in the 13 May issue of Flight International

There is usually some suspense when the US ­military announces a billion dollar contract for a new helicopter – but not this time.
In a move that surprised nobody, the US Navy on 7 May gave Sikorsky a $1.28 billion contract to develop and test a presidential helicopter variant of the S-92, to replace the fleet of Sikorsky SH-3s that have adorned White House news photos for six decades.
Three other potential bidders attended an industry day last June, but then dropped out of the competition. One look at the requirements and Sikorsky’s erstwhile competition – the AgustaWestland AW101, Bell Boeing V-22 and Boeing CH-47 – determined the service was already fixed on buying the S-92.
The navy’s preference is understandable. The last presidential helicopter competition was fought like a political campaign. When an Anglo-Italian/US entry won the contract – defeating a rival bid based on the now-victorious S-92 – it was only the beginning of an embarrassing acquisition meltdown. The deal was axed in 2009, after the cost of building 28 VH-71As ­ballooned from $6.1 billion to $11.2 billion.
While understandable, the navy’s de facto sole-source award is regrettable. It comes only a year after a US Air Force competition for a combat search and rescue helicopter was stunted because the requirements drove all competitors out of the race except for the Sikorsky UH-60.
If the arc of history is long and bends toward justice, the arc of US military acquisition spins back upon itself in a self-prophesied cycle of doom.
For a decade, the Department of Defense acquisition policy embraced competition at all costs – even when the only options were existing aircraft with fixed characteristics – and the military’s requirements unavoidably favoured one or the other.
When the USAF redrew the requirements of its KC-X tanker contest to clearly favour the Boeing 767, Northrop Grumman saw the writing on the wall and dropped the Airbus A330 as a candidate. EADS North America (now Airbus Group) was left with a hopeless bid to steal the win, and predictably failed.
You can fool even an aerospace contractor once or twice, but they eventually catch on. Competitive source selections with off-the-shelf aircraft are impossible to manage. This may become obvious again soon, in contests for the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike aircraft and T-X trainer.


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