WASHINGTON — As the US Air Force looks to replace the aging Huey helicopters that guard the nation's nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, a group of lawmakers is protesting the service's plan to sole-source the contract to one manufacturer.

The Air Force needs a total of 72 aircraft to replace the outdated UH-1Ns that entered service over 40 years ago. Forty-one of those would be equipped for the nuclear mission, while the rest would be used primarily for VIP transport, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service's military deputy for acquisition, testified recently.

The Air Force has been trying to replace the Hueys since the mid-2000s. But this year, top service officials have stressed a new urgency in fielding the capability, contemplating a strategy that would bypass a competition altogether and instead involve buying Sikorsky's UH-60 Black Hawks for the mission.

But the rotorcraft industrial base is pushing back. A group of a dozen House lawmakers wrote a letter last week to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, urging him to direct the Air Force to conduct "a fair and open competition."

"Had the USAF held a competition when the requirement was first identified, those aircraft would be operating today," according to the letter, from Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and several other members. "It is our collective view that a terrible precedent would be set if services were allowed to justify sole-source acquisitions by citing a sense of urgency due in part to a failure to properly plan and execute against known requirements. The House Armed Services Committee has been a champion for competition and it should continue to be."

A sole-source Huey contract award would send the wrong message to the rotorcraft industrial base and could have a "devastating" impact on companies investing in independent risk-reduction and research and development, the lawmakers wrote.

A number of options to replace the Hueys exist in the commercial marketplace for a fraction of the cost of the Black Hawk solution, according to the letter.

An Army Black Hawk configured for the mission could cost between $28 million and $35 million per copy, and operating the aircraft is $5,000 per hour at least, one industry source told Defense News on Wednesday. By contrast, a commercial aircraft that can fly faster and carry more than the Huey would cost in the $15 million to $18 million range, at $1,500 per hour to operate.

It could be faster at this point to sole-source the contract to Sikorsky — now owned by Lockheed Martin — rather than hold an open competition, the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. But the Air Force first announced the need to replace the Hueys a decade ago, the source noted. Congress should not allow the services to "sit on requirements" to the point where it becomes so urgent, the source stressed.

"If we allow services to sit on requirements to the point where it's urgent … you are going to end up with companies not making investment in risk reduction and everyone loses," the source said. "The sense of urgency cannot be created by the agency's own inaction to execute the plan."

The Air Force has estimated the program cost at $1.4 billion for the 41 helicopters configured for the nuclear mission, and $2.4 billion for the program overall. But if the service procures a new aircraft through open competition, the source estimated all 72 aircraft should cost less than $1 billion. 

The service would not be starting from scratch on a new competition, as officials have already released a request for information, the source said.

The 12 signatories of the April 14 letter include six members of the House Armed Services Committee: Shuster; Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.; Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.; Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.; Austin Scott, R-Ga.; and Robert Brady, D-Pa.. The other half of the members who signed on do not sit on the committee: Brendan Boyle, D-Pa.; Ryan Costello, R-Pa.; Patrick Meehan, R-Pa.; Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.; Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.

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