This story, originally published at 5:40 p.m. on May 11, has been updated to include a statement from Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana.
WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is moving forward with a "full and open" competition to replace the entire fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters, according to the service.
The announcement ends months of speculation that the Air Force would bypass a competition altogether, instead buying Sikorsky's UH-60 Black Hawks to replace the Hueys for both the VIP transport mission and the job of guarding the nation's nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But the rotorcraft industrial base has pushed back on the sole-source strategy in recent months, arguing such a move could have a "devastating" impact on companies investing in independent risk-reduction and research and development.
The Air Force needs a total of 72 aircraft to replace the outdated UH-1Ns that entered service over 40 years ago.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.
"Based on a request from the Commander, USSTRATCOM to accelerate the UH-1N replacement effort, the Air Force proposed an immediate re-programming action; however, after thorough review, the Department remains committed to a competitive acquisition approach," Air Force spokesman Maj. Rob Leese wrote in a May 11. "The Air Force has taken multiple steps to mitigate shortfalls in mission requirements to enhance readiness and security of the Nation's nuclear deterrent."
However, one lawmaker criticized the Air Force's decision to move forward with a competition, slamming it as "the slowest proposed route" to replacing the Hueys, which provide critical security for ICBMs stationed at Malstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-MT., expressed concern about the security of the nuclear missiles in a May 11 statement.
"We have an obligation to secure our nuclear weapons at Malmstrom," Daines said. "Right now, our world's most powerful weapons are sitting unsecured in Americans' backyards. We need a strategy to secure our nuclear arsenal. The National Guard needs to be activated immediately to protect our nuclear missiles and work within the Air Force's process to expedite the permanent solution."
More information, such as the timing of the competition, will be forthcoming, Leese said.