After months of debate, the U.S. Air Force has decided to conduct a competition that will determine what rotorcraft replaces the decrepit helicopters protecting its strategic missile installations. The service operates three sprawling bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming where 450 Minuteman missiles essential to the nation’s nuclear posture are located, but the helicopters used to secure the missile fields against intrusion by terrorists and other enemies are woefully inadequate. The helicopters average over 40 years of age, lack offensive weapons or defensive countermeasures, and cannot meet basic requirements for speed, range and carrying capacity. The planned competition would acquire 93 new helicopters better suited to securing missile fields and providing emergency transportation for federal lawmakers in the event of a national crisis (the latter task, conducted from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, is referred to as a “continuity of government” mission).
News about the competition, first reported by Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg Business News, is a relief to legislators and companies who feared the Air Force would try to direct the contract to the Sikorsky unit of United Technologies, maker of the widely used Black Hawk helicopter that replaced the famed UH-1 “Huey” utility helicopter after the Vietnam War. The helicopters the Air Force is currently using to protect the missile fields actually are versions of the venerable Huey, which helps explain why there is a sense of urgency within the service about finding something more modern to carry out such an important mission. Some senior officers in the Air Force wanted to avoid the delays associated with a competition by simply buying Black Hawks, an airframe the service already uses for combat search-and-rescue missions. The Air Force has been trying to replace those helicopters too, so there is a faction within the service that feels money could be saved by purchasing a slew of new Black Hawks for both missions, and thereby sticking with a rotorcraft that airmen already know and trust. An obscure federal law called the Economy Act might have been invoked to bypass the requirement for competition — if Congress was willing to go along with such a deviation from normal practice.
According to reporter Capaccio of Bloomberg, the official Air Force plan now is to issue a request-for-proposals for the 93 missile-field security helicopters later this year, and then put out a separate request for 112 search-and-rescue helicopters next year. The formal name of the program to acquire a new missile-field security copter is the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform (CVLSP). It makes sense to conduct two different competitions because the operational requirements for missile security and combat rescue are radically different. The Black Hawk is probably too expensive an airframe to buy and operate for the missile-security mission, and yet an analysis of alternatives for the search-and-rescue mission in 2004 found the Black Hawk wasn’t capable enough to meet future operational needs. That’s why the Air Force tried to award the contract for the latter mission to the tandem-rotor Boeing HH-47 Chinook not once but twice before defense secretary Robert Gates decided to start over in 2009.
But the fact that the Air Force will now be commencing helicopter competitions for two different missions in a similar timeframe has to make you wonder whether some bright planner on the Air Staff won’t try to drive the outcome towards a combined purchase of Black Hawks, despite the dissimilarities in mission requirements. The argument would be threefold: (1) we already operate Black Hawks, (2) the price-tag for each copter will be lower if we order 200 of the same airframe, and (3) there will be additional economies of scale on spare parts and maintenance across the service life of the fleet. That all sounds quite reasonable until you look at the cost of buying and operating a Black Hawk in the missile-security role compared with other possible airframes. It costs twice as much to build and three times as much to operate as potential alternatives, and may also require a costly co-pilot, unlike single-pilot copters. And then there’s the fact it can’t accommodate all the gear and passenger space needed for some search-and-rescue missions. So what looks like a plausible case for combining the purchase of helicopters for two missions evaporates on close examination.
But that may not be enough to stop behind-the-scenes machinations aimed at going the Black Hawk route. If planners “dumb down” the performance requirements for future search-and-rescue helicopters while exaggerating the requirements for a missile-field security helicopter, they might be able to make the idea of buying one helicopter for both missions seem reasonable. Pentagon insiders say defense acquisition chief Ashton Carter has been talking up precisely this option, which means some clever bureaucrat has briefed the case to him. It’s a bad idea, though, because it will saddle the Air Force with 30 years of excessive costs for protecting missile fields while leaving some warfighters stranded when future search-and-rescue helicopters can’t reach them. The Air Force needs to avoid embracing false economies in conducting its rotorcraft competitions, and pick helicopters according to their operational merit rather than some bureaucratic standard of budgetary efficiency. Familiarity isn’t always the best basis for finding solutions to changing missions.
Find Archived Articles: