USAF overrules top general on competition for new helicopter

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The US Air Force's acquisition leaders are likely to consider three or four different helicopters for a new contract, overruling a senior commander who strongly pushed for a sole-source contract for a new version of the Sikorsky UH-60.

"I expect we will go towards a competitive strategy," Lt Gen Mark Shackelford, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing on 15 March.

A competition would allow at least "three or four vendors" that meet the air force's requirement to submit proposals for the common vertical lift support programme (CVLSP).

sikorsky hh-60, staff sgt aaron allmon/usaf
 © Staff Sgt Aaron Allmon/USAF
Sikorsky has offered to meet both the CSAR-X and CVLSP fleet requirements with a single helicopter - the HH-60M.

The CVLSP requirement has been listed for 93 aircraft, but air force officials recently suggested the number could eventually be 205. The latter number appears to include a related requirement for 112 combat search and rescue helicopters (CSAR-X).

Sikorsky has offered to meet both the CSAR-X and CVLSP fleet requirements with a single helicopter - the HH-60M.

That strategy has been embraced by Lt Gen Jim Kowalski, chief of Global Strike Command, which is responsible for operating the CVLSP fleet. Kowalski said last month that awarding a sole-source deal would accelerate the acquisition process.

For Kowalski, speed of acquisition is one of the key requirements for the CVLSP procurement. The Bell Helicopter UH-1s currently flying the missions, which involve patrolling remote missile fields and ferrying VIPs in Washington DC, have been inadequate for their mission since 1996, he says.

Kowalski last month said the acquisition strategy for CVLSP would be decided during a meeting in March with David Van Buren, the air force's assistant secretary of acquisition, and Shackelford's boss.

It is not clear if the meeting has taken place, but Shackelford's statement indicates the decision on the CVLSP acquisition strategy has already been made.

Although Shackelford says there are three or four vendors that meet the USAF's requirement, at least five companies have expressed interest in the CVLSP programme.

Beyond Sikorsky, the most outspoken advocate for a competition has been AgustaWestland, which has rigged up an AW139M to compete for the contract.

Bell and Boeing have also distributed marketing materials showing their respective UH-1Y Super Huey and HH-47 Chinook products as alternatives for CVLSP, while EADS North America officials have proposed Eurocopter's Super Puma.

The selected helicopter will have to perform a unique mission. As part of its requirement to secure remote missile fields, the aircraft must take off with a fully loaded nine-person response team and four crew members.