Great Falls Tribune: AF makes decision on helicopter replacement

The Air Force has decided to go with a normal acquisition process to replace the UH-1N Huey helicopters flown at Malmstrom Air Force Base and other intercontinental ballistic missile bases.

In a statement, the Air Force said Wednesday that it is “moving forward with a full and open competition for the replacement of the entire UH-1N fleet, which is consistent with the fiscal year 2017 President’s Budget Request.”

Based on a request from the U.S. Strategic Command commander, the Air Force proposed an immediate reprogramming action, according to the Air Force, but after a thorough review, the Air Force “remains committed to a competitive acquisition approach,” as reflected in the budget plan.

“The Air Force has taken multiple steps to mitigate shortfalls in mission requirements to enhance readiness and security of the nation’s nuclear deterrent,” the Air Force said.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., met with Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James on Wednesday, along with Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., to discuss the decision.

Daines said the Air Force’s chosen acquisition strategy is the slowest route and that the Air Force had the option to utilize existing Black Hawk helicopters. He said the Air Force’s rationale wasn’t clear to him.

“We have an obligation to secure our nuclear weapons at Malmstrom,” Daines stated. “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.”

Daines has been pushing the Air Force to chose the most expeditious path to replace the Hueys.

Earlier this month, Daines sent a letter to the Air Force requesting the consideration of utilizing National Guard and their HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Daines said Wednesday that James seemed open to the idea and that he was working with defense officials to pursue that option.

The Hueys 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. Zinke has encouraged the Air Force to replace the Hueys with Black Hawks.

Zinke said Wednesday that he’s disappointed in the Air Force’s decision.

“It is extremely disappointing the Air Force has chosen to punt once again. As a former Naval officer, I looked at the Hueys and I saw glaring weaknesses and vulnerabilities which put our nation and Malmstrom’s mission at stake. There are helicopters that are readily available and will save the taxpayer money, yet leave it to the bureaucrats at the Department of Defense to choose the most costly, inefficient route. I know the Black Hawk well from my time in the SEALs. It is fully capable, meets all the Air Force’s requirements and stands ready to fill the need before us,” Zinke said in a release. “This is not a mission that can fail. Our nuclear triad is at stake.”

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 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.