Pentagon’s Renewed Helicopter Programs Seek Balance Between Affordability And Innovation

It was only a few years ago that the Department of Defense (DoD) seemed almost incapable of bringing a new rotary wing program to fruition. In rapid succession three major new procurements were terminated: the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, the VXX Presidential Helicopter and the Combat Search and Rescue Helicopter. The only procurement that actually made it to the field was EADS’s Lakota Light Utility Helicopter for the U.S. Army. A part of the aerospace and defense sector that had produced the Apache, Black Hawk and tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey seemed to be back on its heels.

Now the Pentagon has regrouped and is working to resurrect all three programs. The Air Force has released a new request for proposals (RFP) for a Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH). The RFP has totally revamped the source selection criteria for the CRH in keeping with the drive for affordability. The cost of the program is not to exceed $6.848 billion for development and production of 112 aircraft. The evaluators will also look closely at low operating costs for the CRH. A bidder who exceeds the minimum technical requirements will have his bidding price reduced by a few percent. While described as a best value solicitation, as written, the RFP seems more like a variant of the lowest price, technically acceptable procurements that are becoming common in the services and support area.

The word is that the Navy soon will release a draft RFP for a replacement for the Presidential helicopter. The prior program collapsed under the weight of exploding requirements. Having learned from this experience, the Navy, the White House and the Secret Service are likely to go with reasonable specifications this time around.

The Army is working its way towards a decision on what to do about a new Armed Scout Helicopter (ASH). There are three basic options the Army can choose. First, it can conduct a service life extension program on the existing fleet of Kiowa Warriors. This will buy about a decade or so before the Kiowa’s aging airframe requires replacing it with a new platform. Second, the Army can go for a variant of an existing platform such as Boeing’s Little Bird or EADS’s Light Utility Helicopter. Third, the decision could be made to invest now in a truly new design, one with growth potential that could be in service for decades to come. Systems such as Sikorsky’s very fast Raider with its two counter-rotating blades and rear pusher propeller or EADS’s X-3 high speed compound demonstrator would be obvious candidates.

Rotary craft procurement, which once looked like another Pentagon acquisition debacle now seems to have turned a corner. If DoD decides to invest in CRH, the Presidential helicopter and an advanced ASH, this will go a long way to ensuring the rotary wing industrial base continues to be vibrant and innovative.