Air Force Takes Steps to Replace Aging Hueys
Photo: Air Force
The safety of the United States’ nuclear missile silos — which make up one third of the nuclear triad — are ensured by a fleet of aging UH-1N Huey helicopters. Following years of delays, the Air Force is poised to make a contract decision on which company will provide its replacements.
Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky, Sierra Nevada Corp. and a Boeing-Leonardo team are all vying for the Air Force contract to build 84 platforms. With bids in, the three companies are awaiting a final decision by the service. Both Sikorsky and Sierra Nevada are offering helicopters based off the Black Hawk, and Leonardo-Boeing is offering a system based off the AW139.
The award — which is due by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2018 — is a long time coming, with the program facing a number of delays and obstacles over the years.
“We are getting a new helicopter if I have to die trying or kill somebody to do it,” Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said during remarks at the 2018 U.S. Stratcom Deterrence Symposium in La Vista, Nebraska, in August.
Air Force Global Strike Command and the 90th Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, have modernized the legacy rotorcraft, keeping them flying and relevant, he said.
“What that wing and what Global Strike Command has done to make that weapon system viable and lethal when it wasn’t just a few years ago is remarkable,” he said. “That Huey is now armed. That Huey can now refuel out in the missile fields. That Huey can do things that just a few years ago it couldn’t because we knew that it was taking too long for us to get the helicopter.”
But while the legacy aircraft are now much more capable and lethal, a replacement is still needed, he said.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ international security program, said the Huey mission is critical when it comes to protecting the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal.
“If there were … a terrorist incident, an attack by a foreign country on an ICBM, you have to get a response force out there very quickly,” he said. “Some of these ICBM silos are five hours by road from command posts. It might be six or eight hours from a reaction force by road. … You have to have helicopters because they’re so spread out.”
However, numerous issues have led to delays in procuring a replacement, said Ray Jaworowski, a senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based market consulting firm.
Issues first began earlier this decade during a program known as the common vertical lift support platform, he said.
“That was the initial requirement to replace the UH-1Ns but eventually that was shelved for primarily budgetary reasons,” he said. “Then a few years later, the Air Force decided they really needed to address the requirement because the UH-1Ns … [were] just getting older. For a while, there was some talk they wanted to do it sole source to Sikorsky for the Black Hawk but that ran into some opposition.”
Leonardo — which was AgustaWestland at the time — opposed that approach and took out advertisements against it, he said. “That got the attention of people in Congress and Congress started pushing for the award to be competed,” Jaworowski said.
With a competition underway, the most recent delay was caused by a protest initiated by Sikorsky in February, he noted.
“They were concerned about … what they perceived to be requirements to share technical data and computer software, … which they consider proprietary,” he said. In May, the Government Accountability Office declined the protest.
“That was a three- or four-month period there where everything was on hold waiting to see what would happen,” he added.
However, as the Air Force prepares to select a company, the next potential hurdle it could face is money, Jaworowski said. Unless the service awards a contract by the end of the fiscal year — Sept. 30, 2018 — funding could expire because the program is using research, development, test and evaluation money appropriated in fiscal year 2017 which has a two-year window to be spent.
As part of a risk reduction move, the Air Force has requested to reprogram $83.4 million from fiscal year 2017 money to fiscal year 2018, a service spokeswoman told National Defense.
“The Air Force proposal is to exchange FY 17 UH-1N replacement funds with FY 18 C-130J funds,” said Capt. Hope Cronin. “This is a cost-neutral move between programs, as it merely trades different years of the same amount of money between the UH-1N and C-130J programs. This will allow UH-1N to execute at lower risk by preventing the expiration of FY 17 funds at the end of this fiscal year in the event a contract award is not completed.”
If the move is not approved by Congress, the contract award would be delayed until a commensurate amount of funding could be sourced, she added.
In the meantime, industry is confident that their offerings will satisfy the Air Force.
Boeing and Leonardo are partnering to offer the MH-139, a militarized version of Leonardo’s civilian AW139 helicopter.
“We’re taking a commercial helicopter that has proven itself in the last decade, being able to fly in different environments and do different missions,” said Rick Lemaster, Boeing’s UH-1N capture team lead.
The AW139 has been used in activities ranging from supporting the petroleum, oil and gas industry to paramilitary or first responder activity, he added. It’s that wide range of missions that the aircraft can support that makes it well suited for the Huey replacement.
The aircraft is modern and is produced both in the United States and Italy.
“We’re able to take advantage of that commercial legacy by providing an aircraft that is going to be cheaper to buy and substantially cheaper to operate than other military helicopters,” he said.
The Boeing-Leonardo team could have an advantage over Sikorsky and Sierra Nevada, which are both offering helicopters based on the Black Hawk, Lemaster said.
The other systems are “based on a helicopter that is a great combat helicopter but the missions that the Air Force is looking to use the UH-1N replacement for aren’t combat missions,” he said.
“Taking advantage of the MH-139 … allows the Air Force to accomplish its missions but also be able to reap” savings in terms of reduced maintenance, per-hour flight costs and less expensive commercial components, he said.
Sierra Nevada Corp. is offering a modernized and remanufactured UH-60L Black Hawk for the competition, said Jack Bailey, senior director of proposal management at the company’s integrated mission systems division.
It plans to buy UH-60As from the U.S. government via the U.S. Army Black Hawk exchange and sales transaction program. The platform will then go through a series of refurbishments, turning the aircraft into a Lima model and equipping it with new features such as a glass cockpit, avionics suite and mission equipment.
While the aircraft may be older and used, Sierra Nevada is taking the system to “its next stage of life,” Bailey said.
“It’s a remanufactured airplane, but it’s the same notion as owning a home,” he said. “When you buy a home, somebody else may have owned the home. You’re going to own a home and you are going to do different things to it that make it yours. Whenever you buy a home you never say it’s a used home.”
That same thinking applies to the approach Sierra Nevada is taking, he said. Not only will the company’s offering generate revenue for the U.S. Army by purchasing used Black Hawks, but it will provide the Air Force with an affordable solution, he said.
Sikorsky is offering the HH-60U, a variant of the Black Hawk which it manufactures. In a statement, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson said that the company was confident its Sikorsky subsidiary would prevail in the contest.
The “offering is the strongest, most capable solution for the UH-1N Huey replacement program,” the spokeswoman said.
According to Lockheed, the HH-60U offers the service an aircraft that is low-risk and already fully compliant with Air Force requirements. Additionally, if Sikorsky wins, the Huey replacement aircraft will be built on the Army Black Hawk full-rate production line, the company said.
Cancian, of CSIS, said that while the contract could realistically go to any of the competitors, Sikorsky may have the upper hand because it can offer the service a lower risk approach.
“Since the program has been delayed and since they were burned at least once, I think that they will therefore go for the low-risk solution,” he said. “This is a small fleet and the Air Force … will [likely] want to link in with the huge … [Black Hawk] logistics and maintenance apparatus that’s already out there.”
The service is already buying the HH-60W, a variant of the UH-60M, for the combat rescue helicopter program, Jaworowski noted.
“If you buy one Black Hawk model for combat rescue [and] a similar model for the UH-1 replacement, that … simplifies your logistics footprint, pilot training, the ability for pilots to easily transition from one model to the other,” he said. That “could reduce cost somewhat because you’re buying essentially the same helicopter for two key missions. … That’s in the Black Hawk’s favor.”
Boeing-Leonardo’s offering, on the other hand, could prove too risky for the service, Cancian said.
The platform has “a lot of international usage but nothing in the U.S. military,” he said. “I think that’s going to be ultimately a problem.”
However, Jaworowski noted the AW139’s fuselage is similarly sized to the UH-1N yet offers more cabin volume which is something the Air Force wants.
Additionally, the platform could be a good fit because the AW139 was originally designed to replace the Bell 212 and 412 rotorcraft on the civil market, he said.
“The UH-1 is essentially a variant of the Bell 212 and Bell 412,” he said. “You can kind of argue that … the whole intent [of the AW139] was right from the start … to replace the UH-1 family of helicopters.”
Like Sikorsky, Sierra Nevada is offering a UH-60-based aircraft.
“That’s also a Black Hawk variant, so that can work in their favor,” Jaworowski said. “The fact that they are taking an already existing helicopter means the per unit price of their bid will perhaps be lower than it would be for a new helicopter.”