The US Department of Defense could save more than $700 million if it forces the US Marine Corps to scrap plans to upgrade 100 Bell Helicopter Textron UH-1N utility helicopters and buy new Sikorsky Aircraft CH-60 Black Hawk rotorcraft, say Congressional investigators.

"In deciding to modernise its fleet of utility helicopters, the USMC did not adequately consider the economic benefits of increased commonality that could be achieved by buying an alternative utility helicopter like the Black Hawk," states a recently released US General Accounting Office (GAO) report.

While the US Air Force and Navy plan to replace ageing helicopters with derivatives of the US Army UH-60 Black Hawk, the USMC has been adamant in seeking to upgrade the UH-1N at a total cost of nearly $1 billion.

The UH-1N modernisation project would parallel the upgrade of 180 Bell AH-1W Cobra gun ships with new four-bladed rotor systems and updated cockpits.

The UH-1Ns would receive the same dynamic components, plus General Electric T700 engines. The USMC points to projected maintenance cost savings achieved by having aircraft-component commonality.

Sikorsky has lobbied for the USMC to scrap the UH-1Ns in favour of new Black Hawks. An unsolicited offer to the Pentagon calls for multi-service procurement of the UH-60. Company officials say that aircraft commonality would in the long run yield greater savings.

The GAO reports adds credence to Sikorsky's claim.

The Congressional auditors believe that an increased Black Hawk purchase would yield as much as $717 million in research- and-development and procurement cost savings. They say that the overall savings could be used to offset higher procurement and life-cycle costs associated with a USMC purchase of Black Hawks.

Senior Pentagon officials met in October to decide whether the AH-14BW and UH-4BN upgrades should proceed into engineering and manufacturing development. While approving Cobra modernisation, they deferred the UH-1N upgrades pending completion of additional commonality studies and operational assessments of utility-helicopter alternatives. Interim results are to be available in December.

The GAO recommends that the USMC be required to buy Black Hawks if the Pentagon studies confirm the overall cost savings.

Source: Flight International