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USAF ditches Black Hawk revival in search for Huey replacement

The US Air Force needs $2.5 billion to replace its 62 outdated Bell UH-1N Twin Hueys and is now considering whether to sole-source a portion of that 72-aircraft requirement for security operations around its 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile silos.

The air force’s latest five-year budget submission funds the UH-1N replacement effort starting in 2017, but reverses last year’s “sub-optimal” plan to revive and modify retired Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawks, and instead seeks new helicopters, perhaps the latest Sikorsky UH-60M, Airbus UH-72A Lakota or Bell Helicopter UH-1Y. AgustaWestland, the rotorcraft division of Finmeccanica, is also considering putting forward its AW139, assembled in America.

USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements Lt Gen Mike Holmes confirmed on 18 February that of the various acquisition strategies being considered, one would split off the nuclear security mission requirement and perhaps sole-source it to one manufacturer.

Other missions include "continuity of government" and VIP transport around the Washington DC region from Andrews AFB in Maryland. The Huey also supports personnel transport around Yokota Air Base in Japan as well as range control and weapons testing activities.

The air force has long focused on acquiring Black Hawks to shuttle armed guards around the missile fields, but Holmes cautions that it’s too soon declare a competition or sole-source buy.

Sikorsky, Airbus and Bell have all expressed interest in replacing the UH-1N with new-build helicopters over the Black Hawk refurbishment plan, proposing instead the UH-60M, UH-72A, UH-1Y and AW139 – all assembled in America.

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Bell UH-1N Hueys of F E Warren AFB in Wyoming, which operates Boeing Minuteman III ICBMs.

US Air Force

This latest UH-1N replacement effort arose from the ashes the air force’s cancelled Common Vertical Lift Support Platform programme, which aimed to achieve initial operational capability (IOC) by this year. This latest plan, subject to congressional approval, would purchase 26 helicopters between fiscal years 2018 and 2021 with live-fire testing and certification of unique mission equipment occurring in 2019 and 2020.

“About half the fleet supports the missile fields where ICBMs are,” says Holmes. “One of the things we’re considering is splitting the missile field requirement off from the rest of the requirement, and then if we do that, we’ll determine about whether we want to go sole-source or competition within that. We are going to move out to replace the UH-1N. That money is in the budget.”

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US Air Force

Of the proposed funding, $988 million supports procurement through budget year 2021 and another $50 million funds development and testing of mission kits. Another $1.5 billion and 46 helicopters are needed after 2021 to complete the procurement.

“We’ve been flying the UH-1, an airplane older than I am,” says Holmes. “With the modifications we’ve done, it’s still a viable airplane but it has speed and payload issues where we need too many of them to do the mission, so we need to move to a future helicopter.”

* This story has been updated to note that the AgustaWestland AW139 is also being considered

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