Pentagon Wanted Sole-Source Search, Rescue

Jan 28, 2009
Michael Fabey

The Pentagon attempted to force the U.S. Air Force to forego an open competition for the service's $15 billion combat, search and rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter replacement program and wanted the service to conduct a directed buy of Bell-Boeing CV-22s, Boeing MH-47s, Sikorsky MH-60s, or a mixed fleet of these types, Aerospace DAILY has learned.

A Defense Department study guidance and the supporting e-mail trail show that the department was pushing for sole-source procurement for the mixed CSAR-X replacement fleet as late as the fall of 2005 and well into 2006 - even though Air Force CSAR-X requirements ruled out MH-60s, and concerns over costs, downwash and sufficient weaponry dropped the CV-22 out of the running. This meant only one aircraft in the analysis would likely meet the Air Force requirements - the MH-47 Chinook.

A Chinook variant wound up winning the first go-around of the eventual CSAR-X competition in 2006, but that effort is now being rebid after multiple industry protests.

In a telephone interview with Aerospace DAILY, DOD acquisition chief John Young questioned the validity of the entire CSAR-X process prior to his 2007 appointment as acquisition chief, saying Air Force and even Pentagon officials failed to ask some of the most basic questions, including: should the service even have a dedicated CSAR force, and if so, what should the aircraft's requirements truly be?

DOD has declined to comment about moves made before Young's tenure.

The Air Force started looking for a CSAR helicopter replacement about a decade ago. The service said it needed a better-armed aircraft that was more agile, networked, powerful and modern to survive the high-threat missions it would perform.

After the service formed and vetted its requirements through the Pentagon process, the three remaining potential replacement helicopters were variants of the Boeing H-47, Lockheed US101 and Sikorsky S-92. The three prepared timely and expensive proposals for the program.

But service documents and related e-mails show the Pentagon was looking to bypass the required selection route. An Air Force briefing dated Sept. 26, 2005, about the Pentagon guidance says: "Selection of OSD-recommended mixed fleet solution would require sole-source acquisition strategy."

The briefing also says the Pentagon's plan would most certainly lead to protests, including by contractors like the Northrop Grumman-EADS team, which had pulled its NH-90 out of the running because of requirement issues.

"Any competitor that bids to CDD [capabilities development document] requirement but loses will claim that they would have won had they been allowed to bid less than CDD offering," the briefing says.

Congressional staffers also have confirmed they pushed the Air Force toward a Chinook variant because lawmakers wanted an aircraft already in production (Aerospace DAILY, May 22, 2008).

The Pentagon interference set up a questionable parallel procurement track outside the one the service had already started with CSAR-X bidders, the e-mail trail and other documents show.

So concerned was Gen. T. Michael Moseley in March 2006 when he was Air Force chief of staff that he wrote to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he was "troubled" by all the "discussions" of a program "path" that has been twice approved by DOD's Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC).

Young said he thought the JROC acted too hastily with its CSAR-X approvals, failing to ask the appropriate questions about the real need for a dedicated CSAR force and the true requirements for such aircraft.

He said those pushing for CSAR-X, like too many other legacy program officials, were simply trying to make improvements on existing mission equipment and assets.

"When you try to do what you do a little better, it pushes the edge of technology," he said. "CSAR-X started to demand more than what was available for helicopters."

The Air Force's eventual choice of an HH-47 Chinook variant led to two protests by Lockheed and Sikorsky that ultimately were upheld by the congressional Government Accountability Office, and a separate Pentagon Inspector General investigation. The Air Force is in the middle of yet another review of proposals by the three contractors for the CSAR-X replacement (Aerospace DAILY, Jan. 6).

Read comments on the post at Ares: Pentagon Pushed for Sole-source CSAR Purchase

HH-47 photo: Boeing

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