Seven members of US Congress want the US Army to explain how it reached its decision to award Bell a contract to replace Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks – worth up to $80 billion over multiple decades.
In a letter to army secretary Christine Wormuth in January, two senators and five congressional representatives said the army has denied their requests for a briefing on how the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) contract was awarded.
“There has been a considerable amount of confusion and valid criticism surrounding the award,” the group wrote in the 13 January letter.
Not coincidentally, all the legislators hail from the same state – Connecticut, home to helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky.
The Lockheed Martin subsidiary and producer of the army’s current utility lift helicopter lost the FLRAA contract last December to Texas-based Bell, a subsidiary of Textron.
“It is our understanding that Sikorsky’s bid for FLRAA was significantly superior in terms of cost, but that due to a subjective unsatisfactory evaluation on a single criteria, Sikorsky’s bid was rejected and never fully evaluated,” the Connecticut delegation’s letter states.
The lawmakers did not elaborate on what “single criteria” they believe to be at issue. However, army leaders repeatedly indicated that flight speed and range were likely the most-important factors influencing the FLRAA decision.
The initial FLRAA request for information provided to industry by the army established objective requirements of a 2,440nm (4,520km) one-way, unrefuelled flight range and continuous cruise speeds of at least 280kt (518km/h).
Other requirements included an average manufacturing cost no greater than $43 million per aircraft, the ability to carry 12 passengers and capacity to carry a 4,540kg (10,000lb) external payload.
The army has been tight-lipped on how it reached its decision, which is now under review by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) following a protest filed by Lockheed.
Without providing details, Lockheed claimed “the proposals were not consistently evaluated to deliver the best value in the interest of the army”, as the basis for its challenge.
Connecticut senator Chris Murphy thinks cost is the reason behind the service’s lack of explanation.
“My guess is that the army is refusing to brief lawmakers on the assault aircraft contract because the price difference between the affordable Sikorsky helicopter and the expensive Bell non-helicopter is enormous,” Murphy tweeted on 31 January.
Bell’s V-280 Valor, which army officials chose for FLRAA, is a tiltrotor design, rather than a conventional helicopter. Sikorsky’s proposed DefiantX would have compound coaxial main rotors and a rear-mounted propulsor – also a deviation from traditional helicopter design.
Neither the army nor the manufacturers have publicly released cost figures on the two designs.
The GAO has 100 days to render a decision in its review, though its conclusions could come sooner. According to the Connecticut delegation’s letter to Wormuth, army officials have been using the GAO review period as justification for not briefing the lawmakers.
“The army has… falsely claimed that a potential or pending GAO protest precludes timely oversight from the United States Congress,” the group says.
The Connecticut officials reject this interpretation, claiming they are entitled to a briefing on the matter under federal procurement regulations.
“The [army] has cited no statutory basis for withholding information from Congress and the GAO has confirmed that no part of the pending protest prevents the army from briefing members of Congress,” the group notes.
The army did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The GAO says it has produced an initial synopsis on the FLRAA protest but will not release that document publicly because protest submissions “contain proprietary or source-selection sensitive information that cannot be released publicly”.
Bell says it has paused all work under its current FLRAA contract, issued after the decision in December, in accordance with protest rules.