The Air Force announced Wednesday evening it is “moving forward with a full and open competition” to replace its aging fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters, including several dozen that are no longer capable of adequately responding if terrorists attack U.S. nuclear missiles.
The decision to initiate a contest for more than $2 billion in helicopters was first reported by CQ.
The proposal could bring to a boil an already simmering congressional debate over how to obtain new choppers for the mission.
Some lawmakers had wanted the Air Force to forego a competition in the interest of security of the nuclear missiles because, they said, a competition could take two years longer than a so-called sole-source award.
“We have an obligation to secure our nuclear weapons at Malmstrom [Air Force Base],” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., a defense appropriator, in a statement Wednesday after being briefed on the new acquisition plan by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “Right now, our world’s most powerful weapons are sitting unsecured in Americans’ backyards. We need a strategy to secure our nuclear arsenal. The National Guard needs to be activated immediately to protect our ICBMs and work within the Air Force’s process to expedite the permanent solution.”
Also attending the meeting, aides said, were Sens. John Hoeven, a Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, both of North Dakota, another home to nuclear missile silos.
Daines said in a brief interview after the meeting that James indicated to the senators that she was open to using National Guard Blackhawk helicopters as an interim security solution while the Air Force awaits completion of the competition and the manufacturing new helicopters.
The Air Force has told congressional offices that it will decide in the coming months about procurement quantities, schedule and cost—but that the first helicopters to be replaced will be the ones guarding nuclear missiles.
“This need is urgent, and I am anxious to hear how long the department expects it will take to meet it with this approach, as well as how it plans to mitigate the risk in the meantime,” House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told CQ.
The Air Force’s proposal appears to be a victory, for now at least, for those members of Congress who had argued in favor of holding a competition—and a win, too, for the companies that potentially stand to gain some or all of the business, including Bell Helicopter, AgustaWestland North America and Airbus Helicopters Inc.
The lawmakers who have advocated a competition for replacing the Hueys include Republican Bill Shuster and Democrat Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania as well as 10 other House members who wrote a letter to James on the subject last month. About half the letter’s signatories represent districts near an AgustaWestland facility in Philadelphia. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, also spoke out in favor of competition.
In addition, David Schweikert, R-Ariz., has written an amendment to the House Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill (HR 4909) requiring competition for the program.
“We look forward to reviewing the department’s final decision,” said Ashley Sylvester, Schweikert’s spokeswoman, in an email. If the upshot is competition, she said, “we are thrilled.”
The House plans to debate the bill next week. As now written, the measure would authorize $80 million not requested by the Pentagon to address an “urgent need” for replacing the Hueys but does not stipulate whether the money should be spent under a competition or not.
The Air Force’s acquisition plan is a setback for those on Capitol Hill who have said the mission of replacing the Hueys is so critical to national security that competition should be jettisoned in the interest of speed. These members were led by a cadre of Republicans: Daines, House Armed Services Strategic Forces Chairman Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Montana’s House member, Ryan Zinke. Most of these members have argued in favor of immediately procuring Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. UH-60M Blackhawks.
The Air Force has known for years that its fleet of 62 Hueys needs to be replaced but has repeatedly delayed the acquisition in favor of other budget priorities. About half of these helicopters would be used to fly VIPs in the national capital area in the event of a catastrophe, while the other half are employed to ferry a security force that guards Air Force intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, in the northern Great Plains.
CQ disclosed in late February that the need to replace the Hueys had taken on new urgency in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill after a secret exercise last year revealed that the Hueys are not capable of meeting a requirement to respond to an attack on any of the missile facilities because they no longer have the range, speed and payload for the job.
The Hueys are able to fly protective cover when nuclear warheads travel on roads in the upper Midwest, but they can only do that because the Air Force is spending $8 million a year on stopgap measures to keep the helicopters flying, including roadside refueling stations.
If, as appears to be the case, the Air Force replaces all 62 of its helicopters, it could cost more than $2 billion, officials have said. Replacing just the ICBM security fleet would cost in excess of $1 billion, they have said.