It is not a huge contract - just 23 aircraft - but winning the prestigious US presidential helicopter deal seems certain to boost the US101's future prospects

As early as October, Sikorsky had inadvertently confessed to a decisive weakness in the VH-92's attempt to claim a $6.1 billion contract to make the next US presidential helicopter fleet.

In the thick of a 47-slide briefing to a helicopter industry symposium, Sikorsky declared: "VXX is a helicopter development programme". At the time, that seemingly innocuous claim was immediately seized upon by the competition -the transatlantic US101 team combining Lockheed Martin, AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter.

Stephen Ramsey, Lockheed vice-president and general manager for US101, pronounced in early December that what was a self-described "development" programme for Sikorsky was a mainly "off-the-shelf" product for the Lockheed team. The US101, Ramsey told reporters, would provide a "helicopter that is ready today".

The US Navy delivered a verdict on 28 January that backed Ramsey up. The VXX - or Marine One - competition was often portrayed as a choice between an incumbent domestic supplier and a foreign helicopter offered by two key US allies - Italy and the UK. The deciding factor, however, turned not on political considerations apparently, but on the USN's conclusion that the VH-92's development track trailed that of the US101.

 "The Lockheed team probably started with a helicopter that needed less. They more closely met the requirements we had laid out, and that allowed them to table less work that had to be completed to get to the finish line and deliver a product," says John Young, the USN's assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. "And that was certainly a factor in the source selection decision." Young says that the larger size of the US101's cabin offered greater flexibility and was also an important factor in the decision, adding that Sikorsky's S-92 baseline model is "pretty comparable in size to today's [Sikorsky] VH-3D".

It was a stunningly straightforward conclusion to a highly charged competition with a publicity factor that seemed far out of proportion to the relatively small size of the USN's planned order for 23 helicopters.

The VXX award for the US101 also continues a breakthrough series of competitive victories for transatlantic bidding teams despite a political backlash from "Buy American" partisans. There continue to be mixed signals from lawmakers and industry about buying foreign military products, but the US101 award continues to reveal that the US military's source selection process is designed to be immune to the debate.

"We don't have a lot of flexibility to drive it in any direction based on politics or [industrial base] aspects, as long as [the proposals] comply" with the contract's requirements, Young says.

The USN's news briefing at the Pentagon on 28 January also made it clear why the two competitors waged such a "spirited" - if not unusually hostile - public relations offensive in the prolonged, year-long run-up to the contract award. The prestige of the presidential transport mission was clearly coveted by both teams, but so was the VXX award's potential to provide a competitive advantage for another US Air Force acquisition later this year.

Recovery vehicle

The USAF plans to launch a competition in May for an order for 132 search and rescue helicopters called the Personnel Recovery Vehicle (PRV). That order could be followed by another USAF contract for about 60 large helicopter transports that would be used to ferry troops and equipment around the USA's sprawling missile ranges.

In his remarks on 28 January, Young sought to avoid providing details that could be used to bias the PRV competition, and also played down the value of the VXX award in that context. "I expect Sikorsky and others to be extremely good competitors for that programme," he says.

But Young also provided details of the VXX spiral upgrade programme that seems likely to play in favour of the US101 bid for the larger PRV order.

With VXX, the US101 is to gain a major engine upgrade paid for by the presidential programme that can be directly applied to the USAF's requirements for PRV. In addition, aspects of the mission systems being developed for VXX can be carried over to the PRV programme, Ramsey says.

"There are truly synergies between the mission package design for the presidential helicopter and for the US Air Force Personnel Recovery Vehicle," says Ramsey.

The VXX funding allows the Lockheed team to propose the upgrades for the PRV programme at no additional cost to the USAF. To remain competitive for PRV, the Sikorsky VH-92 team and the Northrop Grumman/EADS NH90 team may need to integrate similar upgrades on their platforms without requiring the USAF programme to pay the costs.

Bell and Boeing also plan to propose a variant of the CV-22 tiltrotor for at least the second half of the PRV programme, which the USAF is considering dividing into two separate fleets.

Timing has been identified as a critical factor in the forthcoming USAF competition. On paper, the air force wants to field the first aircraft in 2011, but each of the bidders is working to have a capability ready as early as 2009.

The VXX award allows Lockheed to continue development work on the US101 on a pace that is intended to meet that schedule. That pace also hopes to nullify the cost disadvantage for the triple-turbined US101 against twin-engine competitors. Surprisingly, Sikorsky's VH-92 bid for VXX cost more than the US101 solution, negating a presumed advantage for the "All-American" team.

Less work

Young says that Lockheed's proposal "was judged more likely to meet these government requirements on schedule, with lesser risk and at a lower cost". He explains: "The Lockheed team has less work to do to accomplish and meet those requirements, and that means they were able to offer a different cost and... a more manageable risk to us."

Lockheed's development risk, while deemed lower than the VH-92's, is still a concern for the US government. The USN has created an acquisition strategy that is intended to reduce the risk of delays by dividing deliveries into two increments, with the first providing an only marginally better aircraft than the current capability.

"Increment 1 is a desire to respond to an urgent need to get a more capable helicopter in the hands of the president," says Young. The USN's requirements for the first tranche are to field an aircraft with a 460km (250nm) range, an Air Force One-like communications system and a capacity for 16 people.

It is here that Lockheed's US101 proposal showed the most dramatic advantage in technical maturity over the VH-92. By early December, Lockheed had integrated a prototype mission system package and the Increment 1 powerplant - the 2,500shp (1,860kW) CT7-8E.

Early flight

In addition, Lockheed had flown USN programme officials on a "day-in-the-life" mission scenario on board a re-engined EH101-class demonstrator. Sikorsky was not preparing to fly an Increment 1-capable aircraft until at least 2006, when the company planned to certificate the 3,000shp CT7-8C engine.

Increment 2 will mark a major leap in the US101's range and speed performance, as well as introduce classified mission system networking improvements. The USN requires Lockheed to upgrade the US101 with a 3,000shp-class powerplant. It is not clear if Lockheed will rely on a version of the CT7-8C to meet the requirement, but Ramsey confirms GE will remain the US101 team's engine supplier for Increment 2.

The added power is needed to meet a new range requirement of 650km and a new top speed of 140kt. Those requirements are similar to the USAF's stated goals for the PRV programme, which is also aiming to begin aircraft deliveries after 2009.


Source: Flight International