A three-year-old saga over a US Army plan to buy more Airbus UH-72A Lakota helicopters opened yet another potentially lengthy chapter after Leonardo filed a new legal challenge just as a federal appellate tribunal rejected the last one.
The latest twist in the legal wrangling puts Airbus’ final assembly plant for the UH-72A in Mississippi at risk, despite funded army plans to 51 more Lakotas after the lawsuits are resolved and up to 113 more in the long-term.
“The last aircraft rolls off of the delivery line February 28,” says Chris Emerson, president of Airbus Helicopters Inc. “After that, we don’t have any work on that line.”
The last delivery represents the 423rd UH-72 assembled at the Columbus, Mississippi factory since 2006, when Airbus began delivering aircraft under the light utility helicopter contract.
The legal challenges started eight years later. In 2014, the US Army announced a plan to buy 155 more UH-72As to supplement the light utility helicopter fleet and take over a new role as a replacement for the Bell Helicopter TH-67 Creek trainer.
Leonardo objected to the 2014 plan on the grounds that the army was expanding the purchase beyond the requirement for light utility helicopters without holding a full and open competition. Leonardo also believes that the army should have opened the LUH contract to competitive bids after the 10-year term of the original contract expired in 2016.
Despite those objections, the army issued a justification for a sole-source deal to Airbus in 2014 for 16 more UH-72As, the maximum authorized under the original LUH contract.
The US arm of the Italian manufacturer filed a lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims in 2014 over the army’s original decision to bypass a competition. That court agreed with Leonardo’s position a year later, sending the proceedings to an appellate court while the acquisition stalled.
Meanwhile, the army notified the court last May that it had downgraded its plan to buy 155 UH-72As ultimately to 97. With the judgment from the appellate court still pending, the army issued a new justification for a sole source contract to Airbus in late December to buy an initial batch of up to 35 UH-72As.
In early January, Leonardo filed a new lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims to block the new sole-source contract for 35 UH-72As from moving forward. A week later, the appeals court reversed the Court of Federal Claims decision on the army’s plan to buy the first 16 UH-72As, saying the army was justified to issue a sole source contract.
Both contracts now are tied up under the new lawsuit. The army has stopped communicating with Airbus on the plan to buy 16 UH-72As until the lawsuit over the contract for 35 Lakotas is resolved, Emerson says.
On 26 January, the judge in the court of federal claims said she’ll make a decision on whether to allow Leonardo’s new lawsuit to move forward by mid-April, Emerson says.