USAF helicopter competition postponed again, faces new budget review

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A competition to supply 93 helicopters to the US Air Force may be the first publicly known victim of sweeping budget reviews within the Department of Defense.

At least four companies vying for the common vertical lift support programme (CVLSP) have been expecting the release of a draft request for proposals for several months.

However, a new acquisition notice released by the USAF informs the bidders that the draft RFP is being withheld because of "programmatic and budgetary deliberations".

The notice comes less than a week after Michael Donley, secretary of the air force, publicly warned that "lower-priority programmes" would be dropped because of the DoD's new budget environment.

"It's safe to say that every single line of the budget is under scrutiny," Donley said on 19 September, addressing the annual convention of the Air Force Association.

The CVLSP intends to replace 62 Bell Helicopter UH-1N Iroquois aircraft originally delivered 41 years ago.

The aircraft perform two missions. A portion of the fleet is used to ferry security forces around the far-flung fields of missile silos in the western half of the USA. The other half is based around Washington DC, and is primarily tasked with the mission of rapidly evacuating the government's top leadership, if necessary.

The replacement programme has already been delayed by almost a year because of a dispute over acquisition strategy. The USAF's Global Strike Command favoured awarding a sole-source contract for the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk. But David Van Buren, the USAF's acquisition chief, decided to award a contract only after a competitive bidding process.

Sikorsky has four major competitors for the CVLSP contract. AgustaWestland has aggressively marketed the AW139M, with a representative aircraft already modified to perform the mission. Bell is offering the UH-1Y Venom. EADS North America is considering offering the Eurocopter EC725 Super Cougar or the NH Industries NH90.

The budget reviews are likely to delay - or even terminate - the start of a competition, but contract award had been scheduled for September 2012. The first operational squadron was scheduled to enter service three years later.