CQ: Members Vow Floor Fights Over Helicopters

Members in both chambers are preparing amendments to defense bills that would force the Air Force to start replacing aging helicopters that can no longer protect U.S. nuclear missiles from a possible terrorist attack.

An amendment to the House defense authorization bill (HR 4909) by Montana Republican Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, would put the screws to the Pentagon’s new initiative, announced May 11, to hold a competition to replace the Hueys. No more than 75 percent of the Defense secretary’s “travel and representational expenses” budget in fiscal 2017 would be available until Congress receives a certification that a new helicopter can be fielded starting in fiscal 2018, the amendment says.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Montana Republican Steve Daines has written a related bill that he hopes will be an amendment to this year’s defense authorization or defense appropriations measure. Daines’ bill would give the Pentagon five days to decide how it will replace the Vietnam-era Hueys and 60 days to do it.

The lawmakers urgency is due to the fact that the new helicopters would replace a fleet of 62 Hueys that have two critical missions. About half the aircraft transport security personnel who protect some 450 U.S. nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, near the Air Force’s Great Plains bases such as Malmstrom in Montana. CQ disclosed in February that the aging helicopters are no longer capable of responding effectively to an attack alert. The other Hueys would ferry government leaders to safety in the event of a catastrophe in Washington.

“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,” Zinke said in a statement.

“It’s unconscionable that our nuclear weapons are currently sitting unsecured without any clear plan to provide an immediate security enhancement or to replace helicopters that do not meet security requirements,” Daines said in a statement of his own.

‘Shocking Abrogation’

Zinke’s amendment is supported by Alabama Republican Mike D. Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, among others.

Rogers has for months pushed the Air Force to immediately buy UH-60M Blackhawks to meet what senior U.S. military leaders have said is a pressing need to protect the nuclear weapons, instead of holding a time-consuming competition.

Buying new choppers now in lieu of a competition was also the Air Force’s choice, service officials disclosed this week. But officials in the office of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter opted to hold the competition instead.

“The Secretary of Defense’s decision is a shocking abrogation of his responsibility to national security,” Rogers said in a statement. “We are talking about the security of the nation’s ICBM force.”

The amendment by Zinke would not bar a competition but would instead ensure it happens with breakneck speed.

Zinke, like Rogers, would prefer to see the Air Force buy Blackhawks now.

“Yet leave it to the bureaucrats at the DoD to choose the most costly, inefficient route,” he said. “This amendment will try to address the security needs of the missile fields while ensuring that the acquisition process is done in an expeditious matter.”

Zinke said he hopes the Rules Committee will vote May 16 to make his amendment in order for next week’s House floor debate.

The underlying measure would authorize spending $80 million in the coming fiscal year to replace the Hueys — but it does not say how.

The Senate Armed Services defense authorization bill would approve $321 million for the new program, including $302 million to buy eight new Blackhawks to protect ICBMs, the panel said in a statement Thursday evening.

“The nation’s military leaders are saying there is a problem, and the Secretary has chosen to hide behind regulations which he can waive,” Rogers said, referring to requirements for competition in contracting, which by law can be dispensed with in certain circumstances, including when there is a compelling national security need.

“We’re going to help him focus his mind on the nation’s security next week when the NDAA comes to the floor,” Rogers  added, using an acronym for National Defense Authorization Act.

Security, Contracts at Stake

The Air Force plans to spend $2.5 billion on the new helicopters over the next five years. But the exact program cost projection will have to await decisions about which helicopter will be bought and in what time frame, among other factors.

Suffice it to say there is a lot of money at stake, so prospective manufacturers and their congressional allies are champing at the bit for a piece of the action.

Then there are the security ramifications. The odds of a terrorist strike on an ICBM seems low. But the effect of such an attack would be psychologically jarring and potentially destructive, depending on what the attackers would be able to do with a warhead.

The Hueys no longer possess the range, speed and carrying capacity to perform the mission of responding to such an attack, officials now openly concede.

The Air Force has told lawmakers it is open to the possibility of using existing National Guard Blackhawks as an interim option to secure the ICBM fields before the service buys whatever aircraft would represent the long-term solution.

Air Force officials have told lawmakers that any new helicopters would first be fielded to the ICBM security unit, then to the “continuity of government” force.