Op-Ed: Helicopter Troubles Traceable to Government Mistakes
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued August 18, 2008)

(© Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
During its eight years in office, the Bush Administration has tried to transform every facet of the military enterprise. In some areas, such as joint cooperation against irregular threats, it has made real progress. In other areas, it has failed miserably. The area where failure seems most pronounced is weapons acquisition. Successes such as the Stryker armored vehicle and GPS IIR satellite have been few and far between. Most of the time, weapons programs end up over cost and behind schedule.

A case in point is helicopters. During the cold war, helicopter purchases were considered a relatively uncontroversial aspect of military procurement. Not now. In the age of net-centric warfare, even rotorcraft have gotten sucked into the "system-of-systems" Sargasso Sea from which escape into serial production seems nearly impossible. The standard media response when problems arise is to blame contractors. But an examination of rotorcraft programs from each service reveals that fault usually lies with the government.

The VH-71 presidential helicopter is a Navy-led effort to replace 19 aging rotorcraft used to transport the president with modern airframes offering greater range, versatility and survivability. The need for better helicopters became clear after 9-11, and the replacement program was put on a fast track that cut normal development time nearly in half. In 2005, the Lockheed Martin US101 was selected as the airframe that could best reconcile all of the president's requirements with the need to land in confined spaces. But White House urgency collided with the Navy's unbending airworthiness standards, and the result was a series of costly delays driving up the price-tag of the program from about $7 billion to $11 billion. The Navy now concedes it set unrealistic goals for VH-71 that no contractor could have met, and that it needs to restructure the plan to build the more challenging second increment of helicopters.

The CSAR-X combat search and rescue helicopter is an Air Force program to replace HH-60G helicopters that are deficient in range, speed, carrying capacity and other features. The Air Force is the only service that maintains a fleet of search and rescue helicopters, which retrieve an average of 100 warfighters per year from dangerous locations. In 2006 the service selected a variant of the Boeing CH-47 Chinook as its replacement airframe, but losing competitors complained that key performance differences had been overlooked and the Air Force had incorrectly estimated life-cycle costs. The Government Accountability Office partially upheld the protests, leading to a re-competition. But one of the competitors (Lockheed) is saddled with an inaccurate past-performance rating from the VH-71 effort that could doom its attempt to get back in the game. The end result is that fielding of a better helicopter has been delayed, and there are still doubts whether the process correctly measures the merit of competing airframes.

The ARH-70 armed reconnaissance helicopter is an Army program to replace decrepit OH-58D helicopters in the battlefield reconnaissance role. The program was begun in 2004 after the service canceled an earlier reconnaissance helicopter called Comanche. ARH-70 has met all of its key performance requirements, but Army managers complain it is likely to cost more per airframe than planned. What they don't mention is that the initial cost estimate was based on fast-track modification of a commercial rotorcraft, and the service has insisted on adding features beyond the scope of the original effort. Some Army managers want to cancel ARH-70 the way they canceled Comanche, and start over -- an approach sure to delay the delivery of better recon into the field. Why they think that would be a good outcome for soldiers is unclear.


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