Great Falls Tribune: Lawmakers push AF to expedite new helicopter

Members of the Montana congressional delegation are pressing the Air Force to make a decision regarding the planned replacement of the UH-1N Hueys flown at missile bases, including Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Last week, Rep. Ryan Zinke sent a letter, with 14 other lawmakers, to the House Armed Services Committee and House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee requesting that funds be included in the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations and authorization bills to replace the Hueys.

The Hueys at Malmstrom are flown by the 40th Helicopter Squadron, which is part of Air Force Global Strike’s 582nd Helicopter Group. The group includes the helicopter units at Minot and F.E. Warren AFBs.

Zinke has also asked the AF to purchase UH-60M Black Hawks as the replacement airframe.

“I started this process last year. As a former Naval officer and the only member of the Montana delegation to sit on the Armed Services Committee, I look at the helicopters and I see glaring weaknesses and vulnerabilities which put our nation and our the mission at stake,” Zinke said in a release. “If there are helicopters that are readily available and will save the taxpayer money, we need to get them in the field now. I know the Black Hawk well from my time in the SEALs. It is fully capable and stands ready to fill the need before us. This is not a mission that can fail. Our nuclear triad is at stake.”

The Black Hawk was initially the Air Force’s plan, but in February, officials said during congressional budget hearings that they were exploring other options.

During the February hearing, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said, “We are working on that in a rather urgent way,” and that they were working on several acquisition strategies. She said they hoped to finalize that plan by April or May.

That timeline hasn’t changed. According to AFGSC officials, a final decision is expected in April or May and will include approval of the program’s acquisition strategy. Once that decision is made, more details will be released, according to AFGSC.

The fiscal year 2016 budget included $2.456 million for the UH-1N Replacement System Program Office stand-up in FY16.

The fiscal year 2017 budget request includes $32.4 million in support of future year aircraft production, as well as procurement of production engineering support, ground support equipment, publications and technical data and program management activities.

Also included in the Air Force’s FY17 budget request is $25 million for a Service Life Extension Program for a portion of the Huey fleet that involves things such as structural repairs and replacement of key systems based on structural fatigue, system obsolescence and a diminishing manufacturing industrial base. The UH-1N is a 45-year-old helicopter and the oldest in the Defense Department, and the work “is necessary to address concerns identified in multiple studies and to prevent the aircraft from being grounded,” according to the budget justification.

It’s part of a longer project to enable the SLEP of 30 Hueys that are needed to bridge the gap until the helicopters can be replaced.

During that hearing, James assured Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that the Air Force is working to have the Hueys replaced by 2019, and she said she’s pushing to complete the task sooner.

On Friday, a letter is being sent to James from Republican Sen. Steve Daines, and signed by Tester, Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; John Barasso, R-Wyo.; and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asking James to expedite the decision-making process.

“We strongly believe that any further delay of a decision with such national security significance is unacceptable, and urge you to expedite this process as much as possible,” the letter states. “Due to public knowledge and reporting that the helicopter is not meeting security requirements, and the Air Force confirmation thereof, we feel that the risk posed to our national security is far too great to delay replacement of these severely outdated assets.”

In the letter, the senators note that the Air Force has requested funding and testified that the replacement program is on track for new helicopters to be fielded by 2019.

But, the senators request that the Air Force “identify and put forth for congressional consideration the fastest and most cost effective method to replace the UH-1N helicopters as soon as possible,” the letter states. “The Air Force has known the shortfalls of the UH-1N helicopter for too long; the cost of delaying action is far too great a risk for our nation to take.”