Heli-Expo, held in Orlando from 5-8 March, is a commercial-helicopter show, but the elephant in the exhibition hall - at least for the European manufacturers - is the looming decision by the US Air Force on its acquisition strategy for the Common Vertical Lift Support Program (CVLSP).
CVLSP is intended to be the procurement of up to 205 off-the-shelf helicopters to replace Bell UH-1Ns used for ICBM-field security and executive transport. The big question is whether "off-the-shelf" will end up as the sole-source procurement of HH-60Ms through the US Army's existing Black Hawk contract with Sikorsky - a mechanism the Air Force is using already to buy small numbers of HH-60Ms to replace losses in its HH-60G combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) fleet.
Predictably, AgustaWestland and Eurocopter are pushing back hard against the idea of going sole-source - and not just for CVLSP. Also up in the air is how the Air Force plans will recapitalize its HH-60G fleet following the collapse of the 146-aircraft CSAR-X progam. The idea of sole-source procument of HH-60Ms is being floated there too.Photo: AgustaWestland
AgustaWestland is making the most noise, using its own money to build and fly a demonstrator for the AW139M helicopter it would offer for CVLSP. The militarized version of its commercial AW139 medium twin was displayed at the Air Force Association conference last month and at the Heli-Expo convention this week. AgustaWestland plans to bid for CVLSP as prime contractor, noting it already assembles the AW139 in Philadelphia.
AgustaWestland also plans to bid for any CSAR contract as prime, offering the heavier AW101. This would be entirely seperate from its deal with Boeing to offer the AW101 - as the Boeing 101 - for VXX. (The AW101, as the Lockheed Martin VH-71A, having won the last VXX contest.)
The company argues previous Air Force analyses of alternatives showed the UH-60 was not the right helicopter for either CVLSP or CSAR-X. "We will fight the possibility of going sole-source to Sikorsky," says AgustaWestland CEO Guiseppe Orsi. "We believe this has to be competed."
Why the Air Force would want to go sole-source on CVLSP and CSAR when it has just secured aggressive pricing on its KC-X replacement tankers through competition is a baffling. One reason could be the threat that industry protests and Congressional second-guessing would push back already long-delayed programs. Another could be laziness - no-one is going to lose their job for buying Black Hawks.
The question that needs to be answered are whether sole-source would give the Air Force the best helicopter for the job; an adequate helicopter at lower risk; or a less-suitable helicopter at higher cost.