Air Force under pressure over choice of Chinook

A multi-billion-dollar Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter contract is stirring controversy on Capitol Hill, where parochial interests are likely creating rival factions of industry supporters.

Allies of Sikorsky — a unit of United Technologies — and defense giant Lockheed Martin are pressing the Air Force to reopen competition for the new combat search-and-rescue helicopter, a program known as CSAR-X.
Meanwhile, allies of Boeing, which initially won the contract, are pulling strings to ensure the decision stays unchanged. 

The Air Force, in dire need of a replacement for its aging HH-60 Pave Hawk combat search-and-rescue helicopter fleet, awarded Boeing a contract last November to provide its Chinook helicopter as the new search-and-rescue chopper.

The other two competitors, a Lockheed Martin-AgustaWestland team and Sikorsky, immediately filed protests with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO upheld the protests and recommended that the Air Force reopen the competition for the $15 billion program.
Because GAO zeroed in on the single issue of operations and support over the lifespan of the CSAR-X program and did not address several other factors raised in the Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin protests, Air Force officials said that they would “narrowly” interpret the GAO ruling, hinting that they would fix the problem without having to reopen competition.

Meanwhile, Gen. Michael Moseley, the Air Force’s chief of staff, who was not involved in the acquisition decision, said at a congressional hearing that the Chinook would have not been his first choice, but that the Air Force would make it work. 

The service must announce its next move within 60 days after the GAO published its ruling. In the meantime, congressional pressure is building. If Congress disagrees with the Air Force’s decision, it could cut funding for the program, although that would be a drastic measure.

Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) a senior defense appropriator whose district includes the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where the CSAR-X acquisition decision was taken, sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne in which he stressed that the Air Force should follow GAO’s ruling and reopen the CSAR-X competition, for which proposals are “fully evaluated.”

“In light of the recent, impartial review by the GAO, and their findings regarding the award decision made in November 2006, the Air Force should conduct a full and thorough re-bid of the competitors’ proposals to select the best medium-lift helicopter to meet the search and rescue needs,” Hobson wrote to Wynne.

“I look forward to reviewing the Air Force’s re-bid and re-evaluation plans for the CSAR-X program,” he concluded.
The entire Connecticut delegation, in a show of support for Sikorsky, fired a salvo at Wynne last Thursday.

“It is the responsibility of the Congress to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately,” the delegation wrote. “Regardless of the Air Force’s ultimate selection, we believe that now is the time to take action to ensure that the selection process is conducted in a fair, thorough and reasoned manner.”

The delegation expressed concern at Wynne’s reported statement that the Air Force would like to stay with what it has selected and get the product completed as soon as possible.

“We would expect the Air Force’s primary concern would be to ensure a fair and unbiased procurement process, but your comments as reported could be construed to suggest a predisposition regarding the need to take corrective action,” the delegation wrote.

 “American military personnel depend on our pararescue squads to save their lives when they are in harm’s way,” Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “The helicopter designed and manufactured by Sikorsky’s Connecticut workforce fits that bill.” Sikorsky bid with the HH-92.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a senior defense authorizer, also urged the Air Force to follow GAO’s recommendations.

The Lockheed Martin-Agusta Westland team that offered the US 101 also has its stalwart supporters in New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and Charles Schumer (D) as well as Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

Clinton expressed disappointment at the Air Force’s decision last year, and now she has fired off a letter to Wynne saying she is “very concerned” by reports that the Air Force may try to interpret the GAO recommendations “narrowly.”  
She said the new aircraft had to be the right size and have all the capabilities needed for the search-and-rescue missions. The Chinook workhorse is considered a heavy-lift helicopter and not the medium-lift helicopter the Air Force was initially seeking, according to industry sources. The 106th Rescue Wing that would use the new helicopters is based at Gabreski Field in Long Island.

Boeing, meanwhile, said the Chinook is the right aircraft for the mission and was selected fairly. Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky are not the only ones with strong support on the Hill.

Boeing, which builds its helicopters in Pennsylvania, could have Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a defense appropriator, and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) in its corner. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a new member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that the HH-47 is the right choice for the job. Sestak, who represents the district where Boeing builds the choppers, said he is in talks with the Air Force, the GAO and Boeing “to help ensure that the first choice of the U.S. Air Force — the HH-47 — is the final choice for CSAR-X.”

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