WASHINGTON — The Air Force on Friday released its first draft for a replacement to the UH-1N Huey helicopter fleet, and appears to have rejected a potential requirement for a new aircraft to carry more troops than the current model.
The service wants to procure an aircraft capable of carrying at least nine combat-loaded troops at cruise speeds of at least 135 knots. The helicopter must also be able to fly at least three hours — and a minimum distance of 225 nautical miles — without being refueled, the service said in a statement.
The platform must be armored and capable of carrying weapons, which could be a barrier to entry for civilian helicopters.
"This is an important step toward replacing a Vietnam-era platform whose critical capability gaps present the USAF with unacceptable risk in the face of evolving threats," the service stated. "Most notably, the current UH-1N fleet falls short of requirements for speed, range, endurance, payload and survivability."
The service plans on buying up to 84 helicopters, and the winner of the competition will be responsible for providing training devices and courseware. That company must also provide a sustainment plan, which could portend that the awardee will play a strong role in the lifecycle of the aircraft.
This September, Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, signaled in September that the Air Force would require the UH-1N replacement to carry more than nine troops.
"The new helicopter will be able to carry more people than we can actually carry now. I’m not going to tell you what the requirement is," he said then. "The new helicopter [will] carry more people on it than what we can carry on the UH-1N."
If the Air Force had gone forward with the requirement to carry more troops, it would have significantly limited its options, leaving the UH-60 Black Hawk as the likely winner. That prospect might not have necessarily troubled the service, which initially considered the sole-sourcing a contract to Sikorsky for the Black Hawk before lawmakers intervened.
The nine-troop requirement could open the competition to a more diverse group of offerings, but Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, was skeptical that any other platform had a chance against the UH-60.
"The definition of nine troops has gotten heavier over the years," he told Defense News.
The Bell UH-1Y used by the Marine Corps "could conceivably do it, but it depends on definition of nine troops and equipment," he said. AugustaWestland’s AW149 could probably also meet requirements, but it hasn’t found its launch customer yet, making procurement cost prohibitive. Airbus’ H175 might be another option, but the civil helicopter would need to be militarized, which adds
to its cost.
The AW139 and Bell 412 are likely too small, and thus "probably not up to the task," he added.
Price and maturity will likely drive the Air Force’s decision, as the statement by the service noted that it is seeking a "non developmental solution." According to the evaluation criteria noted in the RFP, the award will go to the company that presents a technically acceptable offering with the lowest total evaluated price.
"Technical tradeoffs will not be made and no additional credit will be given for exceeding acceptability," the document states.