WASHINGTON — The House version of the defense authorization bill contains a provision that would allow the U.S. Defense Department to sole source a contract for the U.S. Air Force's UH-1N Huey replacement helicopter.

The proposed language, released today in the House Armed Services Committee chairman's mark of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, will have to survive a long approval process, including talks between House and Senate committee leaders that could lead to the provision being stripped from the bill. However, it could drastically alter the course of the program by giving the Air Force a back door to select a platform without having to continue an ongoing competition.

Although the Air Force has undergone a circuitous process in its attempts to replace its Huey fleet, it's unclear whether it will ultimately opt to change its acquisition strategy this late in the game. The service initially had wanted to sole source a contract to Sikorsky, now a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, for UH-60 Black Hawks. The Air Force then reversed course after lawmakers urged the service to hold an open competition.

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Since then, the Air Force has put out an initial request for proposals but found that none of the potential offerings, including the HH-60U, the Black Hawk variant offered by Lockheed, meet current requirements. A final RFP is due to come out by the end of July, and the service intends to buy 84 helicopters to guard its nuclear missile fields and conduct other missions.

Interestingly, the language gave the defense secretary — not the Air Force secretary — the power to make a final call on whether to sole source. To move forward with a noncompetitive procurement, the defense secretary must certify to Congress that sole sourcing the contract is necessary to making sure a UH-1N replacement is fielded by the end of fiscal 2020, the NDAA states.

Under the current schedule, the delivery of the first UH-1N replacement aircraft is expected in the 2020-2021 time frame. The service plans to award a contract to a single vendor in fiscal 2018. Lockheed’s HH-60U as well as the MH-139, offered by Boeing and Leonardo, are expected to compete.

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, said that if this language becomes law, it’s likely the Air Force will leverage it to buy UH-60s.

"If any service is given this authority, they use it," he said in an email to Defense News. "From the Air Force’s perspective, what's the point in working through the competitive process when they seem to know what they want, and they're sick of the protest process anyway?"

The Air Force declined to comment on the language.