Competitors Line Up for ICBM Security Helicopter Program
Three competitors have emerged for an Air Force program to replace a fleet of nearly half-century-old helicopters used to protect intercontinental ballistic missile fields.
The Air Force and U.S. Strategic Command need to replace a fleet of aging UH-1N Huey helicopters that provide security over missile fields and stand by near Washington, D.C., to evacuate VIPs in case the capital has a really bad day. The number of aircraft required isn’t large, but with few new-start rotary-wing programs on the horizon, manufacturers are keen to compete.
The Air Force has 62 such aircraft now, but has a requirement to replace them with a fleet of 84. The contract award is expected at the end of May 2018 with deliveries beginning in 2019.
The Huey’s primary missions include: airlift for emergency security forces stationed at missile bases; off-base nuclear weapons convoy surveillance; and VIP transport. A handful of the helicopters are slated for missile test range support.
A Boeing-Leonardo team, Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Aircraft and Sierra Nevada Corp. are the three teams that announced that they had submitted a proposal before the September deadline. The Air Force, however, is not required to disclose the competitors, nor are potential contractors required to announce their intentions.
Bell Helicopter — the manufacturer of the UH-1N light utility helicopter — will not be among the competitors, Steve Mathias, vice president of global military business development at Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., confirmed on the sidelines of the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
“From where we are right now and after seeing the requirement, we decided not to submit,” he said. “We have a lot of work going on right now,” he said, citing the V-280 Valor, V-22 Osprey and the company’s civilian offerings, the 505 Jet Ranger and the 525 Relentless. The company did not have an off-the-shelf aircraft suitable for the requirements, he said.
Sierra Nevada is proposing refurbishing UH-60A Black Hawks the Army no longer needs and are destined to be sold in the commercial market, the trade publication Aviation Week first reported. The upgraded model would be called the Force Hawk.
The company’s proposal mirrors the Air Force’s original plan to convert older model Black Hawks to replace the Huey and issue a sole-source contract. That upset several members of Congress however, and the Air Force bowed to their wishes and decided to hold an open competition.
The controversy and subsequent delay sparked some frustration on the part of Air Force Gen. John Hyten, Stratcom commander.
“It’s a helicopter for gosh sakes. We’ve been building combat helicopters for decades. … I don’t understand why the heck it is so difficult,” Hyten said before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
Sierra Nevada did not respond to a request for comment. The other two competitors have not been so reticent. The Boeing-Leonardo team invited members of the media to fly aboard its entry, the MH-139, on the day it submitted its proposal to the Air Force.
Rick Lemaster, Boeing’s MH-139 capture team lead, had crew members on a tarmac at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., unlatch and slide out doors revealing the helicopter’s inner workings. The aircraft was designed with maintainers in mind, he said. Accessing the engine and other internal gear takes only a few moments.
“They are going to get an aircraft the maintainers will love. It’s that easy to work on,” he said.
The MH-139 is based on Italian defense giant Leonardo’s AW139. The company has sold about 900 of the aircraft for a variety of markets over the last 12 years, mostly for transport to oil and gas ocean platforms. About 300 have been produced in the company’s Philadelphia plant.
Along with being easy to maintain, the company touts its speed, which tops out at 165 knots.
“One of the neat things about this helicopter is that it is faster. It was designed as a commercial helicopter so there are some characteristics that we think are really valuable to the Air Force,” Lemaster said.
High main and tail rotor ground clearance means that no one has to duck when the blades are moving. Its footprint is similar to the Huey.
The company also boasts a global supply chain to support the hundreds of helicopters it has sold domestically and overseas. Those customers have used the helicopter for medical evacuation, paramilitary missions and as a first responder aircraft.
“Because it was designed for a variety of missions, it is a good fit for the Air Force, which also wants to use the aircraft for a variety of missions,” he added.
“Going into combat, I would take a Black Hawk, it’s a great helicopter. But these aren’t combat missions,” Lemaster said.
The Air Force has not publicly stated its requirements for the various missions. Both the Leonardo-Boeing team and Sikorsky say their offerings meet all the basic requirements as far as speed, capacity, endurance and how high it can fly in hot conditions.
Sikorsky is offering a version of its Black Hawk it calls the HH-60U.
Artist’s rendering of the HH-60U (Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky)
David “Rum” Morgan, director of strategy and business development at Sikorsky, spelled out some of the requirements for the three main missions.
The emergency security and response mission is the most demanding of the three, he said. The aircraft are tasked with securing missile silos and command centers spread out in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
It requires a crew of four: two pilots and two backend crew members. In addition, it must carry a nine-member security force, their gear and a 400-pound equipment box.
“You have got to fit all that in the aircraft, fly the mission, the range requirements and be able to deploy all that and meet a high-hot hover rate of 6,000 feet, 95 degrees,” he said.
The convoy escort mission requires the two pilots and two backend crew members, but only four security force members. When nuclear missiles are being transported from one spot to another or taken in for repairs or refurbishment, the helicopters provide overwatch. This demands at least three hours of endurance, he said. The Black Hawk with its auxiliary tank can go four hours, he noted.
The continuity of government mission calls for the helicopters to be on standby at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, D.C., in case there is some kind of catastrophe and members of the government must be taken away to safety.
That requires the pilots, one backend crew member and room for eight passengers.
“We meet and exceed the requirements of all three missions,” Morgan said.
Both helicopters will have to add some special equipment or mission kits, such as a gun for the security missions, a hoist, a forward-looking infrared sensor and a fast-rope insertion-extraction system bar that extends out so security forces can get to the ground when the helicopter can’t land.
All mission kit installs are already developed and flying with different customers throughout the world, he said.
The Air Force already has three Black Hawks so there is a logistics system in place and air-worthiness release for aircraft, Morgan said.
In addition, the Air Force HH-60W combat rescue helicopter, which is under contract with Sikorsky and still in development, will have 85 percent commonality as far as parts, which includes all of the dynamic components — the engine, gearbox, drive train and rotorblades.
“This is going to be a lifecycle cost saver for the Air Force because now you only have one supply, logistics, training requirement to operate … as opposed to two for two separate airframes,” Morgan said.
Lemaster pointed to an internal study that said the MH-139’s ease of maintenance would save the Air Force $1 billion over the life of the program. That figure is based on the team’s understanding of the relative difference between the cost-per-flying hour of a military helicopter and the AW139, a Boeing spokesman said. It used objective sources to compare the costs of operating military helicopters with the AW139.
Lemaster said: “We are also going to wow them on the price. I think they are going to be very impressed with what we can offer to them in terms of the aircraft procurement price and the long-term support.”
Morgan said the Black Hawk will have a larger up-front acquisition cost. The UH-60L weighs 22,000 pounds versus the MH-139’s 15,000 pounds, which means that much more material to purchase. But with many of the same parts as the combat rescue helicopter, “you’re going to get so much commonality savings across the 30-year lifecycle.”
And the Air Force won’t have to stand up a new depot unique to the airframe.
“That will be tremendous cost savers for the total lifecycle,” he said, but he declined to say how much.