As the U.S. Air Force culls final bids for its combat search-and-rescue X (CSAR-X) contract, the competing teams are maneuvering for any advantage they can get in the disputed, $10-billion-plus program.
Top Air Force officials have said they want a contract award by July. The program to replace the service’s over-taxed CSAR fleet of Sikorsky Aircraft HH-60G Pave Hawks has been delayed twice by protests from Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, which leads a team bidding AgustaWestland’s AW101 that includes Bell Helicopter.
As it has been throughout, Lockheed Martin is the most publicly aggressive of the bidders. On Feb. 13, for instance, it performed what it said was the first aerial refueling of an AW101. Airborne refueling is a critical requirement for a CSAR helicopter, and the effort was part of what Lockheed Martin officials described as a campaign to convince USAF leaders that theirs is the lowest-risk option for quickly fielding a highly capable new CSAR helicopter.
The Air Force selected Boeing’s CH-47-based bid in November 2006 in part because they said the Chinook posed the least risk to enter service as a Pave Hawk replacement by the target of 2012. The AW101 team wants to knock the CH-47 from that place in Air Force minds.
Another part of the risk-reduction effort was AgustaWestland’s successful testing of its British Experimental Rotor Program (BERP) 4 blades on the Merlin. "We have, in our opinion, addressed all of the major items that someone would be concerned about if they were trying to chase an early [initial operational capability] and move forward," said Dan Spoor, Lockheed Martin’s CSAR-X vice president.
Sikorsky is working the congressional delegation of its home state of Connecticut, among other efforts.
Boeing, as it has been, is relatively quiet publicly in the CSAR battle. The company has lately been busy fighting to overturn its loss in the Air Force KC-X tanker replacement competition to a team of Northrop Grumman and Airbus parent EADS.
Boeing is keeping the pressure on. Amid ongoing reports of problems for the AW101 team with capability shortfalls in the VH-71 presidential helicopter program, one Boeing executive in Washington wondered why the White House hasn’t considered the Chinook for the next Marine One.