Great Falls Tribune: Daines asks AF to use Guard helicopters for nuclear security

While the Air Force is making a decision about replacing UH-1N Huey helicopters at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Sen. Steve Daines has requested that the Air Force consider using National Guard helicopters in the meantime.

The Montana Army National Guard has eight UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters based at Fort Harrison in Helena, and Daines, R-Mont., has asked the Air Force to consider using those to augment the existing Hueys at Malmstrom.

The helicopters are used by the 40th Helicopter Squadron, which provides security in the missile field and can move quick reaction teams into the field if necessary. They also provided search and rescue capability across the region when civilian resources are exhausted.

The helicopters are used by all three missile bases within Air Force Global Strike Command, including Malmstrom, Minot and F.E. Warren AFBs.

The Air Force has been working on plans to replace all of those Hueys by 2019.

In March, Daines sent a letter to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James asking her to expedite the decision-making process. The letter was signed by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; 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.

Also in March, 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.

On May 5, James sent a letter to Daines stating that the Air Force is finalizing its acquisition strategy and has sent their recommendation to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for review.

“Although we are dedicated to delivering a replacement helicopter as quickly as possibly, please understand that achieving an initial operational capability also depends on requesting support requirements, to include trained aircrew, maintenance personnel and appropriate base-level infrastructure,” James wrote.

The Hueys at Malmstrom are currently maintained by civilian contractors and without a replacement decision, Air Force officials have said they don’t have details on whether maintenance duties would shift to active duty airmen or the change would displace civilian jobs.

Malmstrom aircrews would also need additional training on whatever new airframe the Air Force chooses.

During an April Senate defense appropriations subcommittee hearing, Daines asked Secretary of Defense Ash Carter about the helicopter replacement program

Carter said the Hueys are “very old helicopters” that “definitely need to be replaced urgently” and that he’s monitoring the replacement program.

He said the Air Force is currently finalizing their analysis of their options and that officials are “under direction to go quickly.”

A Zinke amendment to the defense bill in the House Armed Services Committee includes $80 million for the Huey replacement program. The amendment passed 60-2 and will go to the House floor in mid-May with the rest of the defense bill.

Zinke has advocated for replacing the Hueys with the UH-60M Black Hawk.

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

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.

Earlier budget proposals indicated that the Air Force had planned to replace the Huey by purchasing Army UH-60A Black Hawk models and converting them to UH-60L models using existing government contractor services by 2020 for an estimated $980 million.