By By Andrew Drwiega | June 1, 2013
When U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the cancellation of the acquisition of a new presidential helicopter – the VH-71 Kestrel – in the summer of 2009, he may have been demonstrating his intention to be tough on wasteful defense spending, but in effect he was merely delaying a problem that would have to be addressed at a later date – or do without his Marine One helicopter squadron! With the issuance of a new Request for Proposal (RFP), the challenge now ahead of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) is how to avoid the horrendous inflation that beset the initial program winners – Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter – and the UH-71 Kestrel (an AW101 derivative). At the time of the cancellation, those inside U.S. Team 101 were complaining of requirements creep together with an aggressive delivery schedule that continually meant a readjustment of the program by industry. The result was a price tag for a fleet of 23 helicopters that rose from $6.5 billion to more than $13 billion with a six-year delay in the program. The rotorcraft industry, or those with a mind to compete for this new VXX, will also recall the nine aircraft that AgustaWestland delivered before the stop-production order was given – that ended up being sent to the Canadian defense forces for spares.
Industry has been asked to bid existing FAA-certified platforms with mature technology. NAVAIR too is working with the Naval Air Warfare Center to produce a mission communications system from existing “off-the-shelf” components, both analog and digital IP based. However, warning bells must sound among industry when they read that “other NAVAIR programs continue to develop and filed other specialized mission systems into a variety of platforms, which will be leveraged for the VXX.” While NAVAIR had planned an industry day at the end of May to gather their feedback on the initial RFP, the warning of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his April 2009 speech should be heeded, particularly “guarding against mission-creep.” Likely contenders for the airframe are AgustaWestland (once again) with the AW101, Sikorsky with its S-92 Super Hawk, and Boeing with specially prepared MV-22s.
So what are the lessons learned from the previous attempt at buying a presidential helicopter? Gates called for acquisition reform, but has this really been achieved and how will the VXX acquisition be prosecuted differently this time around? What has changed in the process and perhaps importantly, how will the NAVAIR customer control and limit its own aspirations?
At times it is plain to see how industry gets “fighting-mad” frustrated at its relationship with those in charge of military procurement. Take the case of the epic saga now well developed over the Armed Aerial Scout procurement for the U.S. Army. Cutting to the chase, last year Army requested industry to take part in “technology demonstrations” involving their offerings for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior replacement. Remember this: First attempt – RAH-66 Comanche (new development; mission creep; huge cost overrun); cancelled 2004. Second attempt – ARH-70 Arapaho (commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) development, spiraling cost overruns); cancelled 2008. Third attempt – er….er….er….
Now recent comments (May 8) by Lt. Gen. William Phillips to the U.S. Armed Services Committee that none of the helicopters that took part in the technology demonstrations carried out last summer were suitable leaves everyone in industry puzzled. “We didn’t find a single aircraft that was out there that could meet the Army’s requirements,” said Phillips, adding: “If we were to go forward with an Armed Aerial Scout, it would essentially be a development program.” But it was always supposed to be a technology demonstration, not a fly off (the media were told time and again – “this is not a fly off”). The messages that industry have been getting from the Army have been confusing for some time now as the reality of sequestration and budget cutbacks has hit home. There seemed to be a suggestion, at least a year ago, that the military was still looking for a COTS solution. But then JMR went from a pipe dream, to an aspiration, to a real requirement, and since then the attraction of seeking a short-term COTS solution has faded, even more now that the end of operations in Afghanistan is coming into view (or so we are led to believe).
It is interesting to review what John Young, Pentagon chief weapon buyer, said during the cancellation back in 2008: “Rather than continue this program, I have decided that the best course of action is to provide the Army with an opportunity to define a coherent, disciplined Kiowa replacement program, and to obtain more rigorous contract terms for its development.” It seems fear of failure is overriding necessity.