By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
In the years since 9-11, Air Force combat search-and-rescue helicopters have saved about 500 soldiers, sailors and airmen from dangerous situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having a dedicated fleet of helicopters that can quickly evacuate wounded or endangered war-fighters is a key factor in mission planning and military morale.
That's why the Air Force describes replacement of its aging HH-60G search-and-rescue helicopters as the service's number-two development priority, second only to the replacement of Eisenhower-era aerial refueling tankers. The Air Force is the only service operating large air fleets devoted to either mission, so they must support the entire joint force.
But now it is the future combat search-and-rescue helicopter dubbed CSAR-X ("X" for experimental) that looks at risk, and if a timely rescue mission isn't mounted by Air Force leaders, the danger could spill over into selection of a next-generation tanker later this year.
The problem began on November 9 of last year, when an Air Force source-selection board surprised observers by picking the Boeing HH-47 Chinook to replace existing CSAR helicopters. A poll of outside analysts by Bloomberg Business News found that most had expected the smaller Lockheed Martin US101 to win, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley conceded that had been his expectation too.
Lockheed immediately lodged a protest, as did Sikorsky, a United Technologies unit offering its H-92 Superhawk in the competition. Lockheed and Sikorsky alleged two dozen major mistakes in making the award, and on February 26 of this year the Government Accountability Office decided they were at least partly right.
GAO found the Air Force had used a different approach to calculating the "life-cycle cost" from that specified in the original request for proposals, which is not permissible under prevailing acquisition practices. Since estimates of the cumulative cost to buy and operate the future search-and-rescue helicopter were a key driver in the selection of the winner, GAO recommended that the Air Force amend its solicitation to clarify how it intended to calculate costs, and then request revised proposals.
The Air Force initially thought it could dispose of concerns quickly by addressing the sole factor cited in the GAO report. This had to do mainly with how the maintenance burden of the rival helicopters would be calculated in arriving at an overall life-cycle cost.
However, GAO informed the service that although mishandled cost estimates were a sufficient basis for upholding the protest, there were numerous other issues raised by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky that could be a basis for further protests if not addressed. So the Air Force asked GAO to identify all of the places where flaws may have occurred in the selection process, and those findings will form the basis for a re-solicitation. It hopes to make a final award in mid-to-late summer, before October selection of the tanker.
That could prove optimistic. First, GAO may identify so many problems that the remedy ends up being a full re-compete between the three teams. Second, data released by GAO from the first round suggests the rival helicopters all bring unique virtues (and limitations) to the table that may produce the kind of close outcome in the second round likely to provoke further protests. Third, if Boeing does not prevail in the second round it could argue that its competitors were given unfair advantages by what they learned about their losses in the first round.
So, having faltered in its management of the original award, the Air Force will be hard-pressed to bring the selection of a new search-and-rescue helicopter to closure.
If it can't, the picking of a future tanker will play out against the backdrop of yet another controversy.