November 7, 2010: The U.S. Air Force is trying to avoid another supplier legal battle by invoking a 1932 law which allows a military service to buy something from another service without competitive bidding. In 1932, there were only two services; the army and navy. In this case, the air force wants to buy 93 UH-60M helicopters from the army. These would replace elderly UH-1N helicopters used for transporting people and cargo around air force bases in Washington, DC. The lawyers are already organizing ways to get around the Economy Act of 1932.
This is not the first time the air force has had such helicopter purchasing problems with contractor and interest group lawyers. Earlier this year, the air force sought to untangle the legal mess it found itself in while trying to replace aging search and rescue helicopters. This came four years after selecting the CH-47 as the new American search and rescue helicopter (HH-47). But after four years of lawyers from other manufacturers contesting that choice, the U.S. Air Force dumped plans to get 145 HH-47s from Boeing. Instead, it is trying to buy 112 UH-60Ms (the latest Blackhawk model) from Sikorsky. These will replace the current force of rescue helicopters (the HH-60G, a variant of an older UH-60 model.)
The HH-47 was basically an updated version of the 1960s era CH-47 transport helicopter. The HH-47 had an edge because SOCOM (Special Operations Command) already uses a CH-47 variant, the MH-47, for commando operations. The 22 ton HH-47s were to cost about $69 million each, be all weather and will have the long range needed to be able to fly itself to overseas assignments.
The CH/HH-47 was selected largely because the air force wanted its search and rescue helicopters to also perform some of the tasks the SOCOM MH-47s was capable of (delivering and picking up personnel deep in enemy territory, or delivering supplies there.) The lawyers for the other manufacturers argued that this was not fair, and so on. Thus the existing HH-60Gs, which are wearing out fast (only about a hundred are still operational), will be replaced by similar (but updated, and brand new) HH-60Ls. These replacements cost about half what the HH-47s would have gone for.
Suppliers have found that, if they lose in a competition to get a sale, they can often get another shot at the deal by unleashing some lawyers on the government, which has so many laws and rules for such deals, that there's nearly always something to get a judge's attention with. This lucrative (for the lawyers, and some suppliers) process is increasingly the cause of delays in obtaining new gear. Keeping the older stuff in service is increasingly more expensive, and dangerous for the crews.