The Air Force is looking to buy a new fleet of utility helicopters to support its domestic operations. The Common Vertical Lift Support Platform (CVLSP) will replace the aging UH-1 Huey helicopters which are employed to inspect and protect ballistic missile fields and transport senior Air Force and government officials around the country. It had been reported earlier that the Air Force wanted to sole source the procurement. More recently, however, Air Force officials are indicating that they will open this procurement up to competition.
The Air Force decision to make the CVLSP program competitive is a good one. There are a number of existing platforms that could perform the intended mission. From the United States there is the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk and the new version UH-1Y Bell Textron Huey. From Europe there is EADS, which currently is supplying the U.S. Army with its UH-72 Lakota helicopter, and AgustaWestland with a number of light and intermediate platforms. The Air Force’s recent experience in competing the new tanker program, while tedious and even sometimes painful, did result in a significantly better price for the customer.
Hopefully, the decision to compete the CVLSP program is a harbinger of things to come. In many cases, competition drives down price and improves product quality. The profit motive is a powerful incentive motivating the private sector. In an era of shrinking defense budgets, reducing program costs is of vital importance to the Air Force.
Saving money is particularly important when it comes to maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO). Aircraft are complex systems that are difficult and relatively expensive to maintain. Anything that reduces the costs of MRO is important. Yet, the Air Force only competes a small fraction of its MRO work, particularly in the area of parts, subsystems and assemblies. Moreover, experience shows that major savings can be achieved when parts can be repaired rather than replaced with new ones. The Air Force needs to rethink its approach to contracting as well as its MRO practices.
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