Oct. 28, 2012 - By AARON MEHTA Defense News
The fight over who will design the U.S. Air Force’s new combat search-and-rescue helicopter (CSAR) is underway.
The Air Force last week issued a request for proposals (RfP) for the project, setting cost and performance parameters that will guide one of the service’s most expensive aircraft acquisitions over in the coming years.
The new Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) — as it has formally been rebranded — is DoD’s second attempt over the past decade to replace its heavily used Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawks, some of which have been performing military and civil rescue operations since 1982.
The Air Force wants to purchase 112 new helicopters, which must provide improved “hover performance, combat radius, payload and cabin space,” according to an Air Force statement.
Acquisition officials have capped the CRH program at $6.8 billion. Bids are due Jan. 3, with the contract award expected in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2013, or next summer. The structure is a fixed-price, incentive firm contract for the engineering and manufacturing development and low-rate production portions followed by a firm fixed-price contract for full-rate production. The acquisition program is expected to last for 14 years.
Despite the healthy price tag, companies might be hesitant about putting down large bids because of past failures in the acquisitions process, said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group.
In 2007, the Air Force awarded Boeing a contract expected to be worth $15 billion under the Combat Search and Rescue-X (CSAR-X) program. But after the Government Accountability Office upheld a protest from competitors Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin over how the contract was handled, the deal was canceled in 2009.
“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of enthusiasm, but everyone will have to put in some kind of bid,” Aboulafia said. “A lot of people might look at this and say, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, or three times…’”
Companies are also skeptical as to whether funding will actually come through for the project, both due to the current budget environment and because the new DoD focus on southern Asia requires a lesser role for the helicopters, Aboulafia said. He predicts that the program will eventually enter a series of deferrals, “likely with another program emerging sometime in the future.”
Prior to the RfP, companies already had been laying the groundwork for their proposals. Interested industry officials have been able to ask public questions ahead of the request, which is used to inform their eventual bids.
A sign-in sheet from an industry day event in September included representatives from AgustaWestland, Boeing, Dayton, EADS, GE, Lockheed, L-3, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins and Sikorsky, among others.
“The Air Force RFP fully clarifies the specific requirements needed in a combat rescue helicopter,” Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens wrote in an email. “Sikorsky will offer an affordable and compliant solution to meet this important and critical mission.” Sikorsky and Lockheed will team up on the bid.
AgustaWestland spokesman Geoff Russell confirmed that it would partner with Northrop to offer the AW101 platform for their bid.
Boeing also might submit one or more existing aircraft for consideration.
“Both the Boeing H-47 Chinook and Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey programs are reviewing the final CRH RFP closely against the capabilities and specifications of the H-47 and V-22, respectively,” according to a Boeing statement.
EADS spokesman James Darcy said the company is “studying the RFP and evaluating our options, but [is] not prepared to provide specifics at this time.”
A Bumpy Road
The Pave Hawk recapitalization effort has not been a smooth one. It has taken nearly three-and-a-half years to relaunch CRH following the CSAR-X cancellation.
And during the CRH presolicitation process, one potential bidder was delayed in receiving classified information it requested when the Air Force forgot to mail the answers to the company.
Acquisition officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, only realized they had forgotten to send the information when a company asked the Air Force why it had not received answers to the classified bidding specifications through proper channels.
“We sent in several classified questions in July that have not yet been answered, we suspect due to the pending changes to those documents,” wrote the unnamed contractor in comments that were made public in late September. “Does the government plan to answer those questions?”
The Air Force responded in late September through a document posted on a federal contracting website stating: “All classified questions have been addressed. Updated document reflects answers. Discovered that answers were not mailed out. Answers will be mailed this week.”
Asked about the documents, the program office stressed there were no violations of Air Force rules in either the handling of the document or the delay.
“They were secure at all times, and it was an oversight that they weren’t sent when originally scheduled,” Laura McGowan, a spokeswoman for the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson, wrote in an email.
Documents like these typically are kept in a locked container or safe, per government regulations, McGowan said.