Will the U.S. General Accountability Office’s ruling on the latest CSAR-X protests settle the matter and allow that contentious yet critical Air Force procurement proceed? Don’t count on it.
The GAO is due no later than Sept. 17 to rule on protests of the Air Force’s re-tooled bid for 141 combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft. But as we went to press in mid-August, players in the drama considered a ruling imminent.
It seemed certain the fight would end up in court no matter how the GAO ruled. If the agency rejects the protests and allows the Air Force to proceed, Lockheed Martin (teamed with AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter on an EH101-based bid) and Sikorsky (offering a militarized version of its S-92) are considered sure bets to take their case to the Court of Federal Claims, which weighs appeals on acquisitions. Likewise, Boeing, whose H-47 was picked by the Air Force in November 2006 for the $10-billion-plus contract to replace aging and overloaded Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks, is very unlikely to walk away from such revenue without a fight.
The fundamental problem is that the Air Force needs new CSAR helicopters now. The Pave Hawks no longer have the performance to do the mission the service requires. Replacing them is its second highest priority (after new aerial tankers), as the USAF chief of staff, Gen Michael Moseley has said repeatedly. He now faces the prospect of leaving the chief’s billet before a contract is even let for the Pave Hawk’s replacement, especially if the procurement ends up in court. (He also faces loss of congressional support for funding the program; the Air Force has already lost nearly $160 million in CSAR funding in Fiscal 2008 because there is little chance the service can have a contract in place by the time that fiscal year starts Oct. 1.)
Moseley is said to be exploring options for getting CSAR-X back on track, including pushing to cancel the current, fouled procurement and re-combining it with the requirement for new missile-site support and VIP-evacuation helicopters. The Air Force had planned a single procurement for CSAR and so-called Personnel Recovery Vehicle helicopters, but those programs were split several years ago.
Such a move wouldn’t speed fielding of new CSAR birds; a reconfigured procurement likely would push the schedule back at least two years. But it would entice bidders with the promise of a bigger program, provide another chance to persuade Congress that the service can actually pull off a major acquisition, and possibly broaden support within the Air Force bureaucracy for the acquisition.
Moseley doesn’t control the CSAR-X acquisition. It’s in the hands of the assistant AF secretary for acquisition, Sue Payton. But he has a big hand in the AF budget, and power of the purse goes a long way in Washington.