By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
This week the Air Force is issuing a revised solicitation for its future search-and-rescue helicopter that service leaders hope will put the embattled program back on track.
The Air Force is the only service operating a dedicated fleet of helicopters for extracting downed pilots and other war-fighters from dangerous locations, and it has saved about a hundred military personnel per year since 9-11 (not to mention thousands of civilians). But the existing fleet of HH-60G helicopters has grown so decrepit with age that the aircraft are often out of service, and they will need to be retired early in the next decade.
When Air Force chief of staff Gen. Michael Moseley declared last year that the $13 billion effort to field a new combat search-and-rescue helicopter by 2012, dubbed CSAR-X, was his service's number-two modernization priority, it wasn't hard to understand his sense of urgency.
However, the program became embroiled in controversy on November 9 when the service surprised just about everybody (including Gen. Moseley) by selecting the Boeing HH-47 as its next search-and-rescue helicopter.
The HH-47 is a version of the venerable CH-47 Chinook that has been carrying cargo and troops for the U.S. Army since the 1950s. It is also operated as the MH-47G heavy assault rotorcraft by the U.S. Special Operations Command, and is used by major allies such as Australia, Britain, Italy, Japan and Korea. Nonetheless, HH-47 is so much bigger than what most observers were expecting in a next-generation rescue helicopter that Boeing almost didn't bid it at all, and when it won critics charged the Air Force was biased in Boeing's favor.
The good news is that there was no conspiracy -- as the Government Accountability Office has ruled, the source selection process was consistent with prevailing acquisition practices except for one relatively minor failing that will be corrected in the revised solicitation out this week.
Now for the bad news: just about every pilot in the Air Force from the chief of staff on down thinks their acquisition officials picked the wrong helicopter in the initial selection. Here are a few items that got overlooked:
1. The HH-47 generates much more dust than other helicopters being offered.
2. The HH-47 generates much more heat than other helicopters being offered.
3. The HH-47 generates much more noise than other helicopters being offered.
4. The HH-47 generates much more downwash than other helicopters being offered.
5. The HH-47 requires more space in which to land than other helicopters being offered.
6. The HH-47 requires more time to prepare for missions than other helicopters being offered.
7. The HH-47 requires more favorable weather for safe operations than other helicopters being offered.
The Air Force's revised solicitation will not consider any of these issues, because GAO did not identify them as problems in the original acquisition process. The only problem it flagged was the method used to calculate maintenance and other support costs.
But let's set aside the lawyerly concerns and use some common sense here.
Isn't all that downwash, dust, noise and heat going to make it a lot harder to operate safely in the search-and-rescue mission? Shouldn't readiness and survivability be prime concerns when you know you'll be conducting extractions in hostile air space?
Air Force civilians may be able to dispose of the bureaucratic concerns surrounding their original choice by conducting a narrowly-drawn recompetition, but if they think that will end the controversy, then they aren't listening to their own war-fighters.