Procurement: Sore Losers Succeed

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September 26, 2007: The U.S. Government Accountability Office has now told the U.S. Air Force that it should re-start the CSAR-X competition from scratch, after again upholding a protest by Lockheed and Sikorsky, the companies that lost. In essence, the Air Force will be told to re-do a competition for a new search-and-rescue helicopter, ten months after selecting its choice, and re-affirming it after the first round of protests.

The winner of the first round had been the HH-47 (PHOTO), and had a number of things going for it. The biggest was the decades long track record that the CH-47 and MH-47 airframes have with the United States Army and Special Operations Command. Both platforms 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 H-47, adding to its edge over the competition. Veteran American combat jets like the F-16, F-18, and F-15 have benefited from this dynamic in foreign competitions.

The Sikorsky S-92 and the US101 from Lockheed and Augusta were the losing choppers. The latter helicopter won the competition to be the new Marine One (PHOTO), and received the designation VH-71. The former has no orders outside the Canadian military. In essence, they are newer kids on the block, and lack the track record of the H-47 platform.

The HH-47 offered significant improvements in performance over the HH-60 - and beat the competitors by wide margins in some areas as well. It has a range of over 2,000 kilometers without aerial refueling, which is significantly higher than the S-92 (just under 1500 kilometers) and the US101 (about 1,400 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. This means that there will be much less risk to the HC-130 tankers (which have been in use since the 1960s). The HH-47 will also have a higher ceiling (18,500 feet) than the HH-60 (14,000 feet), or its competitors (the H-92's ceiling is 13,780 feet, while the US101's is 14,000 feet). This means that CSAR operations in places like Afghanistan (which has a lot of mountains) will be easier to perform with the HH-47 than with the other platforms.

Lockheed and Sikorsky plan to overcome this with a media campaign - and lobbying Congress. So far, this has led to a delay. Sikorsky, of course, will be in better shape since the Air Force will soon have to rely on service life extensions for the HH-60 (which the Air Force doesn't want, since they have chosen a replacement).

The real problem, though, is that other losers will see the attempts by Lockheed and Sikorsky as a blueprint for other hotly contested projects, like the Air Force's new tanker program. And as the contractor wars heat up, the troops will soldier on with aging helicopters - and will deal with the risks. But the fact remains that they are caught in the middle of this fight. The people who designed the protest process never figured out how to deal with sore losers. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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