In Rotor & Wing we often report about the dangers facing our deployed warriors. It’s not often that we get to report on dangers faced right here at home. The warfighters, in this case, are those aircrew and security forces who currently fly 1960s-era UH-1Ns and the danger appears to be an acquisition system which may be ignoring their validated needs in order to create a “politically correct” acquisition strategy. That procurement is called Common Vertical Lift Support Platform, or CVLSP. Their mission is to protect the U.S. nuclear arsenal and ensure the safety of our national leadership during natural or man-made emergencies. However, the battle now is one of brinksmanship between the Air Force acquisition community and the Air Force Global Strike Command, representing the operational units.
The debate centers on whether the Air Force should conduct a full scale, complex competition to fill this requirement or simply procure helicopters off an existing multi-year contract. In an interview with Stephen Trimble on March 8, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the commander of Global Strike Command, stated that he believed the Economy Act of 1932 provides the USAF with the right way ahead, shortening the acquisition process and getting the right solution, faster. Using the Economy Act would allow the Air Force to buy UH-60Ms off the Army’s existing contract, eliminating the need for a costly and time-consuming competition. He went on to say, “I have had an urgent and compelling need since 1996, in terms of speed, range and payload. The UH-1 does not meet the need. How much longer are we willing to wait and take this risk?” Lt. Gen. Kowalski was clearly trying to avoid the debilitating delays, protests, and cancellations that have plagued the USAF’s recent attempts to buy helicopters. On March 15, the Air Force acquisition community struck back when Lt. Gen. Mark Shackleford, the senior military acquisition officer in the Air Force, briefed members of Congress that three or four companies are qualified to build the aircraft for CVLSP in order to discredit the applicability of the Economy Act.
However, Rotor & Wing has learned that the acquisition community may have pulled a “fast one,” as the Request for Information (RFI) issued to conduct their market survey is missing several critical operational requirements, and that the acquisition community may have simply failed to mention, in order to create the impression that more competitors might exist. The fear of advocating for a sole-source contract, even if the facts support one, has clearly resulted in the unilateral reduction of the warfighters’ validated requirements, in order to justify an acquisition strategy for full and open competition.
While officers close to the official Capability Development Document (CDD) for CVLSP are not against a competition per se, they are highly upset that the CVLSP RFI released to industry on Dec. 17, 2009, is missing several key requirements.
Among the most critical are: the ability to hover out-of-ground-effect during a Missile Emergency Response Mission; loiter times sufficient to ensure adequate support of Emergency Response Forces; and the need for a rescue hoist.
One USAF pilot said this about the lack of OGE hover: “Operationally, it means that you would need a helipad, a road, or level clearing to land near the silos. This would mean that any bad guy worth his salt would have a.50-cal sighted in on those locations, that would definitely ruin the TRF [Tactical Response Force]’s day. The helo must be able to put the team down in the most advantageous spot, maybe several spots, depending on location, the threat, weather, etc. No OGE hover in the objective area is a huge vulnerability.”
A “dumbed-down” RFI results in market research that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, and it drives helicopter manufactures to waste precious resources chasing opportunities for which they believe they are qualified. Most importantly, it further delays fixing these critically important shortfalls in the security of our nuclear weapons arsenal, while the Air Force, industry, and Congress all try to dig out from the confusion caused by deliberately misleading them on mission requirements, or at best, work by a staff that knows nothing about helicopters and their missions. Regardless of the acquisition community’s motivation to conduct the market survey in this fashion, the victims of these procurement delays are the warfighters flying the legacy aircraft every day, and the American taxpayer who will pay the expensive bill of an unnecessary or unnecessarily delayed competition. The program office should conduct the survey with the actual CDD requirements. Then, choose the right path for the program, based on its merits, not some preconceived notion of “what will sell.”