Rescue-chopper plan under review

A Pentagon decision to subject a multibillion-dollar plan to replace the Air Force’s combat search-and-rescue helicopters to a new kind of review is sending shudders through the service, the helicopter industry and some supporters on Capitol Hill.

The Pentagon’s newest acquisition chief, Kenneth Krieg, is making his mark on the department’s purchasing process by initiating a so-called “investment portfolio review.” The Air Force’s proposal, known as CSAR-X, happens to be the first program to go through it.

The Air Force is concerned that CSAR-X is serving as the “guinea pig” for the review, a Pentagon official said.

“There is nothing written down as to what a portfolio review really is,” the official added.

But some fear that what has become known as a “mystery review” could lead to the restructuring or even demise of the program.

A Department of Defense spokesperson said that the idea is “to review all aspects of the CSAR-X investment strategy within a broader joint context of multiple planned helicopter programs, prior to initiating a program via the Defense Acquisition Board process.”

“You could think of the investment review as a strategic meeting occurring first,” the spokesperson added. “Then, as appropriate, the Defense Acquisition Board may convene to oversee the acquisition of a specific system solution.”

But both defense and industry officials are questioning the timing and the reason behind the review. Its results are due just as the Air Force is getting ready to receive proposals from the helicopter industry before awarding a contract in August.

The Pentagon’s sweeping look at capabilities and strategy, called the quadrennial defense review (QDR), gave CSAR-X a strong endorsement, thus emboldening the Air Force to add $849 million in its 2007 budget request to accelerate the program. The service has asked competitors to change proposals they had submitted in November to reflect the 40 percent budget increase and the accelerated schedule, said Lt. Col. Dave Morgan, who monitors CSAR-X acquisition. Lockheed Martin-Agusta Westland, Sikorsky and Boeing are competing for what could be a $10 billion program.

The Air Force has been working for years to replace its aging HH-60 G Pave Hawk helicopter fleet, which is dedicated to rescuing downed crews and others stranded on the battlefield.

Since 1999, the Air Force has gone through the required acquisition process, which includes a mission statement, a range of studies and an analysis of alternatives, under the Pentagon’s guidance. The service concluded that it would need 141 medium-lift helicopters.

The Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. Michael Moseley, stands firmly behind the new rescue helicopter program, what he calls one of the Air Force’s core missions. But the Air Force may be swimming against the tide in the Pentagon, where acquisition officials, under criticism from Congress over spiraling costs, are looking to find common capabilities that all military services could share.

That could lead the Pentagon to decide that other helicopters already under contract, such as the MH-47 Chinook or the V-22, can do the combat search-and-rescue jobs, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. “But the Air Force wants something specific and dedicated, rather than an adaptation of another platform,” he said.

“Throughout the requirements process, there are people in the Office of the Secretary of Defense who have a vision of a one-size-fits-all helicopter,” the Pentagon official said.

CSAR-X is the only program from which the Pentagon can take money and create a “joint” helicopter program, the official said. But such a program, with or without its shortcomings, would come too late for the Air Force. The Army and the Navy both have medium-lift helicopter programs under way, and another new helicopter won’t be needed until 2020, leaving the Air Force to make do with whatever is available, the official said.

If the Pentagon’s acquisition officials decide to restructure CSAR-X, they will run into opposition from the Hill, a congressional source predicted.

“We see no need to second-guess the Air Force when the train has already left the station,” the source said. “Let’s get the bids in and make a decision.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee whose district includes the Air Force’s rescue wing at Moody Air Force Base, is a stalwart supporter of CSAR-X.

“I feel strongly that the Air Force has a good plan to bring these much-needed rescue helicopters to the field as soon as possible,” he said. “I think the Air Force should be allowed to continue the competition and pick the best solution before anyone starts second-guessing them.”