The US Marine Corps has awarded Bell Helicopter Textron a $134 million contract to initiate a UH-1N light-utility-helicopter modernisation programme in preference to buying the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk.

The project was held up by the Department of Defense (DoD) in October 1996, when further military-helicopter commonality studies were ordered. Sikorsky Aircraft had been lobbying for the USMC to scrap the UH-1N upgrade in favour of new UH60 Black Hawks.

The USMC has been adamant in seeking DoD approval for its H-1 upgrade, in which 180 AH-1W attack helicopters would receive four-blade rotor systems and upgraded cockpits. A further 100 UH-INs would receive the same type of four-blade rotor systems as those on the AH-1W, and General Electric T700 engines.

Sikorsky's unsolicited offer was part of a scheme for multi-service UH-60 procurement. Company officials argued that aircraft commonality would yield greater savings in the long run. The concept would have stretched Black Hawk production into the next century.

Pentagon officials hoped to define better the benefits of multi-service Black Hawk procurement. In the end, officials decided to leave the decision to the US Navy, which allowed the USMC to proceed with the so-called 4BN upgrade.

The issue was debated within DoD circles for much of 1996. A Pentagon study concluded that the AH-1W/UH-1N upgrade was more cost-effective than USMC purchase of marinised McDonnell Douglas AH-64D Longbow Apache gunships and Black Hawks.

A second DoD evaluation said that cost estimates for the UH-60 and UH-1N favoured the Huey upgrade. A USMC study determined that a UH-60/AH-1W mix would need more money and personnel than suggested alternatives.

In October, the US General Accounting Office issued a report claiming that the DoD could save over $700 million if the USMC had to scrap the 4BN upgrade.

Source: Flight International