Air Force chief frustrated over helicopter wrangling

Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Moseley expressed frustration at the prospect of a protracted fight between the Air Force’s acquisition arm and industry, along with Capitol Hill, over a controversial rescue helicopter contract award.

“Combat search and rescue is a big deal for people like me,” said Moseley, a general who represents the operational side of the Air Force. “So the notion of continued protest and the notion of continued lawyers and [administration] and messing with this is not right from the operational side when we are fighting the war.”

ADVERTISEMENT
The Air Force was expected to issue a new draft request for proposals (RFP) for its Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter program this week, but the service is holding off for several weeks, according to several sources. The decision to wait was due in part to a Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry into the Air Force’s helicopter selection decision, as well as the fact that the service had not submitted all the required documents to the panel by the end of last week.

In November, the Air Force chose the HH-47 modified version of Boeing’s heavy-lift Chinook helicopter. Competitors Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, both of which offered medium-lift helicopters, filed separate protests with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In February, the GAO upheld the protests, ruling that the Air Force failed to evaluate properly the lifecycle costs of the three helicopters offered for the CSAR-X program. The GAO did not rule on any of the other issues raised by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky.

Facing pressure from the Hill and industry, the Air Force, which has decided to interpret the GAO ruling narrowly, plans to issue a new solicitation that is supposed to lay out clearly how it will assess lifecycle costs.

But the Air Force is also bracing for the possibility of new industry protests.

“We need to get on with the program,” Moseley said at a breakfast with defense reporters. “This is not about lawyers. This is not about companies. This is about operational capability and fielding a capability to go pick up airmen, soldiers, sailors, Marines and coalition partners.”

There appears to be a disconnect between what the Air Force chief wants and what acquisition leadership is requiring, according to an industry source.

“There is no indication at this point that the amended RFP will request any revised information about deliveries or schedules,” the source said.

Lockheed Martin was quick to note that despite the protest delays and a new RFP, it is committed to meeting the program’s original initial operational capability date of September 2012. Sikorsky also said that if selected it will deliver its HH-92 helicopter “well in advance” of the Air Force’s requirement. Boeing did not return a request for comment by press time.

Moseley on Tuesday reiterated his previous position that the Chinook would not have been his first choice for the CSAR-X. “We would make it work,” he told The Hill. “The acquisition system gave it to us. It is better than the HH-60; it’s got more range and can carry more. We will be OK.”

Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne asking the Air Force to submit a series of documents related to CSAR-X. One of McCain’s top concerns was that the Air Force selected a heavy-lift helicopter when the requirement was for a medium-lift helicopter.

The Air Force was supposed to submit all documents by April 19, but failed to do so. Air Force acquisition staff met with McCain’s and committee staff Friday. The meeting prompted Air Force acquisition leadership to delay the draft RFP, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also entered the fray recently, urging the Air Force to open the books on what he called a flawed bidding process. Lockheed Martin, which is partnered with AgustaWestland for the competition, is planning to build the US101 helicopter at its plant in Owego, N.Y.

Schumer said the Air Force is moving quickly to limit the inputs from industry and re-approve the Boeing deal, and may close out Lockheed for good.

“If the Air Force doesn’t change course right now, Lockheed Martin may be shut out for good by an unfair bidding process,” Schumer said. According to Lockheed Martin, 200 jobs would be added to the Owego facility if Lockheed were awarded the $15 billion contract.

Moseley called the CSAR-X the Air Force’s second most important priority after its new air refueling tankers, another magnet for potential industry protests.

Separately, Moseley also said at the breakfast that the Air Force may need an additional $20 billion a year for the next 20 years to address readiness, modernization and budget issues.

“When you look [at what it costs] to recap an Air Force and to maintain a global capability, the 20 billion is a rough gauge to protect the fuel accounts, the investment accounts, to protect the inflation rates and to protect the exchange range,” Moseley said.

Moseley said the Air Force has little money available to buy new aircraft and that the Air Force is overseeing an aging fleet, some of its planes dating to the 1950s and 1960s. “Operational and maintenance costs have gone up 180 percent over the past 10 years, operating these old aircraft,” he said.

Additionally, the troop surge in Iraq is causing further strain on the Air Force, he said. The Pentagon is borrowing money and people from the Air Force, and oftentimes airmen find themselves assigned to jobs for which they were not trained. He said more than 20,000 airmen have been assigned to jobs outside their specialties.