Boeing's MH-139 helicopter will replace the U.S. Air Force’s UH-1N “Huey” fleet, which currently protects intercontinental ballistic missiles and transports U.S. government and security forces. Photo courtesy of Boeing
At last week's U.S. Air Force Association conference at National Harbor, Maryland, the eyes of Boeing officials had a knowing glint when they discussed the Boeing-Leonardo bid of the MH-139 to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of Bell UH-1N Hueys.
Industry observers had predicted that a variant of the UH-60 Black Hawk would secure the win, and Bell parent company Textron decided to beg off the competition last year because officials there believed it was geared toward a Black Hawk variant.
At the conference last week, Boeing officials were cagey when pressed for specifics about the price of the MH-139 bid, but Rick Lemaster, Boeing's director of global sales and marketing for military vertical-lift programs, said that the MH-139's maintainability and lack of a depot requirement would help the Air Force save $1 billion over the UH-1N replacement's life cycle.
In fact, while the Air Force had set a total price of $4.1 billion for the UH-1N replacement, the Boeing-Leonardo winning bid for 84 MH-139s came in at $2.38 billion, more than $1.7 billion lower than the Air Force ceiling.
The MH-139 helicopter is based on Leonardo's commercial AW139 multi-mission helicopter.
“This is one of the highest dollar value civil helicopters in the world," Richard Aboulafia, VP of analysis at The Teal Group, said Sept. 25. "If you look strictly at the economics, the 139 wins. They have the advantage of scale and pricing." In addition, while the U.S. military has increasingly looked to the Black Hawk for squad transport, the smaller MH-139s are the "closest analog" to the UH-1N in the niche role that the Hueys play for the Air Force.
The $375 million contract announced Sept. 24 is for the first four MH-139 helicopters and includes integration of non-developmental items, according to the Air Force. The first operational helicopter delivery is expected in fiscal 2021, when it will take over patrolling nuclear missile fields and perform doomsday VIP transport in and around Washington, D.C.
The contract also includes operations, maintenance, training systems and support equipment for the MH-139 aircraft.
The Boeing-Leonardo team vied with Sikorsky and Sierra Nevada Corp. in the “best-value” competition.
Sierra Nevada Corp. proposed conversion of old Army UH-60A Black Hawks to the more-modern L model.
Sikorsky bid the HH-60U Black Hawk, as the Air Force is already using three of the models for range support.
The UH-1N entered into service in the 1970s and protects the Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and launch sites and provide emergency transportation to support Continuity of Government Operations missions in Washington, D.C. Air Force requirements indicate that the service is looking for a faster and quieter helicopter to handle the escort of convoys, missile field contingencies, the transportation of government officials and range support. The Air Force calls for each bird in the replacement fleet to be able to fly 480 hours per year.
The MH-139 win is a psychological victory for Leonardo in its ongoing effort for a sustained presence in the U.S. military market.
“We are extremely proud of this outstanding result," Leonardo Chief Executive Alessandro Profumo said in a statement. "Major customers continue to rely on Leonardo to meet the most stringent requirements like the critical mission of protecting missile bases and transporting government personnel and special forces. This selection is also testament to Leonardo as a strong, reliable partner and long established contributor to the U.S. industry.”
Boeing, meanwhile, is on a recent win streak. The company last month secured an $805 million Navy contract for the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial tanker and a $152.5 million Navy contract to design, develop, integrate, and test the Infrared Search and Track System (IRST) Block II system for the F/A-18 E/F.
"For Boeing, the MH-139 win is a solid endorsement of the idea they can work with international air frame partners," Aboulafia said. "They're pushing that concept with Embraer and with other companies around the globe. It's a platform ecumenical approach to bidding requirements."
Boeing stands a chance in another significant contract in the next week in the Air Force T-X competition for the service's follow-on trainer. Boeing and Saab are bidding a clean sheet design, while Leonardo DRS is offering the T-100, an upgrade of Leonardo's M-346, and Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries are bidding a version of the KAI T-50 jet.