Kim Smith, a 54th Helicopter Squadron UH-1N mechanic, rewires an attitude director indicator in a hangar at Minot AFB, N.D., in January 2017. The replacement of this 1970s-era aircraft has taken a detour through legal limbo. Photo: A1C Justin Armstrong
The Air Force’s two helicopter fleets are both in need of urgent replacement. The service is trying to replace them—and it’s not the first time—but while the aCombat Rescue Helicopter effort is moving along smartly, the Huey replacement program has gotten bogged down in the legal weeds.
The UH-1N fleet fills two roles: VIP transport at various locations and security at Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) missile fields across numerous states. The aircraft monitor silos and provide quick response to security breaches. The service wants to buy 84 aircraft for the mission.
The UH-1N replacement (the Air Force has never gotten around to giving it a formal name) has taken a detour through legal limbo. First, the Air Force was refused permission by Congress to simply buy 25 new HH-60 helicopters, on a sole-source basis, from Sikorsky.
Replacing the 1970s-era Hueys has been slowed most recently by a protest submitted in the current competition by Sikorsky; the delay has added so much time to the schedule that AFGSC has had to upgrade the fleet to keep the aircraft safe to operate.
The head of US Strategic Command, Gen. John E. Hyten, called the situation “unacceptable.”
“It’s a helicopter, for gosh sakes,” Hyten said last year about delays on the Huey replacement. “We’ve been building combat helicopters for decades. … I don’t understand why the heck it is so difficult.”
A PROTEST AND A DELAY
Sikorsky’s complaint has to do with an Air Force initiative, started several years ago, to “own the technical baseline” of new-start programs. That meant the Air Force would get the basic drawings and software code of the system, allowing it to have open competition when the time came for upgrades, maintenance work, and software updates. Sikorsky balked that this amounted to surrendering intellectual property to which it claimed the Air Force had no right.
Sikorsky’s entry—another H-60 variant, the HH-60U—was offered after the company had seen a draft request for proposals, attended an industry day, and participated in five rounds of questions and answers with Air Force acquisition officers. Sikorsky knew the planned rules of the contest.Boeing announced it was entering with the purpose-built MH-139, based on Leonardo’s AW139.
Although protests typically are made after a competitor loses a contract award, Sikorsky made the unusual move of protesting before a winner was selected. In February, it asked the Government Accountability Office to look at whether USAF had the right to demand so much of the “technical baseline” of the aircraft. The company said in a statement that it had argued the point with USAF to no avail and had exhausted its other options.
The GAO on May 23 announced it had rejected Sikorsky’s claims, but only after USAF modified its conditions following Sikorsky’s protest. On March 8, almost a month after Sikorsky’s formal complaint, the Air Force issued a clarification letter saying it wouldn’t require the winning contractor to provide rights to noncommercial software or detailed manufacturing data. The letter, GAO said, rendered Sikorsky’s argument moot in “this part” of its protest.
MSgt. Antonio Gueits is hoisted into a 459th Airlift Squadron UH-1N during a training exercise near Mount Fuji, Japan, in 2017. Photo: SSgt. David Owsianka
“As a general matter, we will not consider a protest where the issue presented has no practical consequences with regard to an existing federal government procurement, and thus is of purely academic interest,” the GAO wrote. “We only consider protests against specific procurement actions and will not render to a protester what would be, in effect, an advisory decision.” Sikorsky, in reaction, said it was considering its next step.
The process wound up stretching out a program USAF wanted to expedite, and drew frustration from several USAF leaders. The service had planned to award a contract in June, but because of the protest, now doesn’t expect it can make a selection until October at the earliest.
Because of the delays, the Air Force has been obliged to continue upgrading the aged UH-1N fleet. The Fiscal 2019 budget request includes $8.88 million for a service life extension program for up to 63 of the helicopters. Global Strike Command has already provided fuel and armament system upgrades to the fleet.
The protest delay is a source of exasperation at STRATCOM. Although the upgrades are reducing operational risk, new aircraft are needed as soon as possible, Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
“I’ve been working to try to get a helicopter in the hands of the folks in the missile fields for over a decade,” Hyten said. “And that’s where my frustration comes from.”
The four UH-1Ns at Yokota AB, Japan, were the last in the Air Force to be modernized. TSgt. Nicholas Poe, an instructor and special mission aviator with the 459th Airlift Squadron, said the aircraft at the base received GPS upgrades, and all but one have received night-vision goggle capability. (That one aircraft still needs special lighting to help pilots fly at night.)
New avionics help the aircraft fly in bad weather, which is frequently the case in the vicinity of the busy Tokyo City Air Terminal, Poe said.
Two years ago, the Yokota helicopters received a rescue basket and hoist and are going to receive improved seats for their VIP mission. The helicopters regularly train alongside the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and also routinely fly VIPs on a regular “milk run” into downtown Tokyo. The upgraded aircraft are “a lot more capable” than just two years ago, Poe said.
The Yokota helicopters are all late-1960s models. Despite their age, they are among the most ready in the Air Force, however: The four assigned to the 459th AS have a mission capable rate of over 90 percent. “It’s super-reliable and cheap to fly,” Poe said of the improved UH-1N, but he admits that its lack of modern self-test sensors makes it harder to know when something is going wrong mechanically.