The future of US Air Force’s next-generation combat rescue helicopter (CRH) programme remains uncertain despite an expected injection of more than $300 million in fiscal year 2014.
That’s because, contrary to some reports, sources say current-year funding isn’t enough to guarantee a contract for Sikorsky, the only company to bid to build CRH.
Both Sikorsky and the USAF have said a contract depends on funding projections for future years, information that likely won’t be available until President Barack Obama releases the fiscal year 2015 budget request.
“We are encouraged that Congress continues to support the combat rescue mission with the available funds,” Sikorsky says in a 17 January statement. “We await confirmation that continued funding exists for [fiscal year 2015] and beyond to enable a contract award this year.”
The statement comes after the US House and Senate passed a fiscal year 2014 budget bill that includes $334 million in funding for CRH.
Sikorsky and partner Lockheed Martin are poised to win a contract to build up to 112 CRH-60 aircraft, a modified version of Sikorsky’s UH-60M Black Hawk.
The project is worth nearly $7 billion over 14 years. The aircraft are intended to replace the USAF's aging HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters, which are also a Sikorsky product.
While Sikorsky would build the aircraft, Lockheed would produce mission equipment and the survivability suite of electronics at its factory in Owego, New York.
After Congress passed the spending bill, Senator Charles Schumer of New York issued a statement saying the budget ensures that a contract for the combat search and rescue [CSAR] helicopter “will move forward.”
“The appropriations funding means that the CSAR mission will continue as planned and Lockheed Martin Owego will receive the work,” the statement said.
Senator Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
But the USAF, like Sikorsky, has said a CRH contract will depend on spending projections.
In November 2013, the service said it was “laying the groundwork to award the CRH contract in the second quarter of fiscal year 2014.”
But it added, “The award is contingent on the outcome of the President's budget review process where CRH would need to be funded across the future year's defence programme.”
The USAF declines to comment for this story, but says it intends to release a statement if President Obama signs the spending bill.
The spending bill itself hints at the issue of future years’ funding.
“These helicopters need to be replaced. However, in a period of fiscal austerity, the program must be affordable to ensure that it is not canceled due to insufficient funding in future years,” the bill says.
“The Air Force must continue to assess its acquisition strategy to find ways to control costs and ensure that the program remains on track to deliver these helicopters to the fleet.”
The bill also prohibits the USAF from cancelling the project without first presenting the results of a programme analysis to Congress.
Statements made by USAF officials in recent months have stoked speculation that the CRH programme might be delayed or cancelled.
When asked about CRH in December, Acting Secretary of the USAF Eric Fanning said the service will need to prioritise “precious” investment dollars.
He added that the USAF has options other than “awarding the [CRH] contract… or killing it.”