Air Force helicopter contract faces another holdup

The Air Force's much-delayed search and rescue helicopter contract has hit a snag -- again.

On Monday, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. announced that it had filed a protest of the Air Force's amended request for proposals, arguing that the service failed to address serious flaws in its evaluation of the aircraft's operating and support costs. Lockheed Martin Corp. filed a similar protest with the Government Accountability Office last week, suggesting that the Air Force would be better served with a broader re-evaluation of the contract proposals.

Last November, the Air Force chose Boeing Co.'s HH-47 helicopter, a modified Army Chinook, for the $15 billion contract to replace its aging fleet of 141 search and rescue helicopters. Shortly thereafter, Sikorsky and Lockheed filed protests.

GAO upheld one objection, recommending that the Air Force issue a new RFP clarifying the overall life-cycle requirements. Last month, the Air Force complied, issuing narrow draft changes that spelled out how the service would assess the costs to operate and maintain the helicopter. But the service refused to allow changes to other aspects of the proposal, including performance figures, fuel efficiency or mission capability.

Greg Caires, spokesman for Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, said the Air Force's amended RFP "does not comply with the corrective action recommended by the GAO earlier this year. We understand the urgent need for new CSAR aircraft and believe that a broader re-evaluation of bids, consistent with the GAO's recommendation, will result in an outcome that would better serve our nation's warfighters."

The company said it would remain committed to meeting the Air Force's September 2012 deployment date for the helicopters, should it get the contract.

GAO has told the Air Force it may be able to resolve the differences faster through the use of alternative dispute resolution, a procedure in which government attorneys tell the parties what they should expect from the protest, before the process actually concludes.

Officials with Boeing expressed annoyance with the continued delays but said they remain confident in their proposal.

"One thing that has not changed is that the HH-47 remains the most capable aircraft at the lowest risk to the Air Force, and that will still be the case once all amended CSAR-X proposals are evaluated," said Joseph LaMarca Jr., director of communications for Boeing's Rotorcraft Division. "The entire process has been fair and unbiased and, in our opinion, it is time to move on with the final selection so we can get these new aircraft to our warfighters as soon as possible."

The dispute centers on the Air Force's decision to interpret GAO's ruling narrowly and focus exclusively on life-cycle costs. The decision essentially means that, with minor exceptions, the contractors will be judged on the language in their original proposal, a move that clearly benefits Boeing.

The decision sparked a rare public rebuke of the Air Force by one of its top contractors.

"There is simply no rational basis for the Air Force to ignore information that has been brought to its attention repeatedly and of which it is plainly aware," wrote Ariel David, Sikorsky's director of government contracts and associate general counsel, in a five-page letter to Phillip Marcum, the Air Force's CSAR-X contracting officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. "It is almost as if the Air Force does not care if the evaluations previously made in the technical proposals are still valid or even if they were correct to begin with."

Sikorsky claims its HH-92 helicopter is lighter and more fuel efficient than Boeing's HH-47 or the US 101, developed by Lockheed and its international partner, AgustaWestland.

The Air Force plans to award the contract this fall.

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