Air Force to purchase helicopters that would guard nuclear bases

The Air Force has launched a $4.1 billion program to replace 62 decades-old UH-1N Huey helicopter to guard intercontinental nuclear missile bases on the Great Plains and transport high-level officials in “continuity of government” operations.

The long-anticipated competition is expected to pit the Boeing Co., teamed with Leonardo, offering the Italian-designed MH-139 helicopter built in Pennsylvania, against Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky HH-60U, an updated Black Hawk helicopter built in Connecticut. Bids are due Aug. 30 with a winner selected by the fall of 2018, the Air Force says.

The contracting program is managed at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and Special Operations Forces Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The service branch could purchase up to 84 helicopters with deliveries to squadrons starting in 2020 or 2021.

The Air Force says the armored and armed aircraft would address “shortfalls” of the Vietnam-era Huey in speed, range, endurance, payload and survivability.

RELATED: Aerospace firms compete for Air Force contracts at air show

Aerospace makers were expected to compete aggressively for the lucrative contract, which would cover production and sustainment in the field.

“The service seems to want a UH-60, for reasons of commonality with the Army and Navy’s thousands of H-60s, and because the Black Hawk will handle all contingencies,” Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Virginia-headquartered Teal Group, said in an email. “ … Given the age of the UH-1 fleet, the service just wants to move forward in a straightforward and relatively protest-proof way.”

Boeing and Leonardo brought the MH-139 to the Vectren Dayton Air Show last month, and local media representatives flew aboard the helicopter at Greene County Lewis A. Jackson Regional Airport.

“The (air) show’s close proximity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base gives Air Force personnel and the public an opportunity to experience the aircraft up close, and learn why it is well-suited to replace the venerable UH-1N, known as the Huey helicopter,” Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said in an email last month.

The MH-139 is a militarized version based on a commercial design of Leonardo’s AW139 helicopter.

RELATED: Air Force Secretary in exclusive interview talks about BRAC, threats

“This is going to be the first time it’s offered to (the Department of Defense),” Rick Lemaster, Boeing’s director of global sales and marketing for vertical lift programs, said in an interview last month. “That’s one of the things that Boeing can bring to bear is our experience in taking a commercial derivative aircraft and be able to put all the logistics support in place.”

David Morgan, manager of Air Force business development at Sikorsky, said in an email the HH-60U is “a proven, tested and available aircraft to fully meet requirements for the Air Force’s crucial missile site and utility support missions.”

The Air Force has three HH-60U helicopters in its fleet today. The Defense Department has had about 3,000 H-60 helicopters of different variants flown by the Army, Navy and Air Force, according to the company.

In 2014, Sikorsky won an up to $7.9 billion contract to produce up to 112 HH-60W aircraft as the Air Force’s next combat search and rescue helicopter.

About the Author