Stakes are getting ever higher as government rotary wing contract awards often have far-reaching positives for American defense contractors. In the works are programs to replace the Army’s scout helicopter (Armed Arial Scout) and the Air Force’s combat search and rescue (C-SAR) helicopters (Combat Rescue Helicopter—CRH). The scout replacement is now in round three after the Sikorsky/Boeing RAH-66 Comanche and the Bell ARH-70 program cancellations. The CRH program is the second iteration of the C-SAR competition initially won by Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook.
But when it comes to free publicity and prestige, no rotary wing program comes close to the exposure gained by flying “Marine One” and the President of the United States. Thus, a second round of competition for the Marine Corps’ new executive transport for the White House has officially begun with the Navy’s publication of a draft request for proposals (RFP) for a new “VXX program” on Nov. 23, 2012.
Competition and the dwindling number of large of defense contractors can create bedfellows that were once rivals for the same contract. Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin were pitted against each other only a few years ago while trying to capture the prize of the initial VXX competition. Sikorsky was offering a version of the S-92 Superhawk transport and Lockheed Martin teamed with AgustaWestland to submit an American variant of the AW101 Merlin.
The competition—awarded to Lockheed Martin in 2005 before being cancelled in 2009 due to cost issues—was, at least in the view of the public, intense and hard-fought. While Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin were duking it out for the win, the two companies were working together, most notably in systems integration for the U.S. Navy’s MH-60S Knighthawk and MH-60R Seahawk rotorcraft programs. In fact, the two companies have partnered on different programs for almost four decades.
Now, joining forces on the next edition of the “Marine One” program, Sikorsky is teaming with Lockheed Martin to offer a version of the S-92 in the hopes that Sikorsky may keep its current parking spot on the White House lawn.
The original VXX program became the reluctant poster child for defense contracts gone awry. Delays and gigantic cost overruns, due mostly to spiral development issues brought on by the changing White House requirements after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, brought not only the ire of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), but also its share of criticism from high-profile politicians, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Two recently released GAO reports (11-380R and 12-380R) are designed to help the next iteration of the VXX competition avoid some of the pitfalls that eventually led to the cancellation of the initial VH-71 Kestrel program. Taking on some of the GAO lessons, the Navy, in its draft solicitation, is looking toward an off-the-shelf, FAA certified, rotary wing replacement for the long-toothed Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King helicopters currently serving the executive transport mission for the White House.
Of course, the special needs of a helicopter carrying the commander-in-chief will require that any current helicopter undergo somewhat substantial modifications. Sikorsky, with the S-92 currently flying 11 heads of state, is quick to point out, in a release last week, that the “S-92 helicopter is one of the few helicopters in the world designed to meet the FAA’s rigorous safety standards (FAR 29).”
Facing the S-92 in the VXX competition will be the AW101, this time offered by Northrop Grumman in partnership with AgustaWestland. A Boeing spokesman stated that the company was studying the Navy’s proposal request and would analyze the requirements to see if either the CH-47 Chinook or the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey might be offered for the program. For a time, Boeing had entered into a licensing agreement with AgustaWestland with the AW101 specifically for VXX.
All of these players are likely candidates in the Air Force CRH program as well.
Related: VIP/Head of State News