Procurement: Dirty Politics

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July 27, 2007: There's an old joke in the Pentagon about foreign powers being the opponents and the other services being the enemy.

The American aircraft builder Boeing has launched a public relations offensive in response to critics of the winner of a recent competition to select a new search and rescue helicopter (CSAR-X). In essence, with Lockheed and Sikorsky turning to both local media and politicians to push their entries, Boeing has found itself having to launch a counter-offensive, or find its victory overturned due to the back room deals with politicians. This has the potential to draw out the process even further, especially if one or more of Boeing's competitors end up going to court. This is not surprising, since $15 billion, to build 145 choppers, is at stake.

Boeing's offensive is aimed at addressing the complaints about downwash and brownout with their entry. Among the methods being used are demonstrations that show that the HH-47 met the specifications. In essence, the goal is to make the competition for these contracts more reasonable, and less game playing. It also will make the case for the Boeing helicopter (the HH-47) far more compelling, particularly when the HH-47 already had a number of things going for it. The biggest was the track record that the similar CH-47 and MH-47 have to date with the United States Army and Special Operations Command. Both helicopters have performed well since the 1960s. A lengthy track record like that is very hard for newer competitors to overcome. A number of major U.S. allies, like the United Kingdom and Japan, also use the HH-47, adding to its edge over the competition. American combat jets like the F-16, F-18, and F-15 have benefited from this dynamic in foreign competitions. The HH-47 uses a number of the same systems that the MH-47G will be using. By ordering more of these systems, the unit price will go down somewhat, which will lower the price of both the Special Operations birds and the Air Force choppers.

When it came to performance HH-47 offered significant improvements in performance over the HH-60 - and beat the competitors by wide margins. The MH-47 has a range of over 2000 kilometers without aerial refueling, which is significantly higher than the S-92 (just under 1500 kilometers) and the US101 (about 1400 kilometers). The maximum unrefuelled range of an HH-60 is just under 820 kilometers. This means that the HH-47 would be able to search longer than both the present CSAR helicopter and its competitors for a downed pilot, or search further away than the other options without having to refuel.

In other words, the best chopper won the competition. If Boeing's PR offensive to demonstrate that the downwash and brownout issues are not serious succeeds, it will also make Lockheed and Sikorsky look like sore losers, and put a damper on political interference. It also will make Boeing look like the victim of political meddling, which could be an asset if Boeing wins the KC-X competition, which could be worth as much as $40 billion. That's a lot of money - and even more when one considers that the KC-X is only the first of three programs to replace 546 aging KC-135s. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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