WASHINGTON — In an upset, a Boeing-Leonardo team has won a $2.38 billion contract to manufacture a new batch of helicopters to replace the Air Force’s UH-1N Huey used to guard the service’s nuclear missile silos.
Boeing and Leonardo’s MH-139, a militarized version of the commercial AW139 manufactured by Leonardo subsidiary AgustaWestland in Philadelphia, beat out Lockheed Martin Sikorsky and Sierra Nevada Corp., which both offered versions of the UH-60 Black Hawk — which some analysts saw as the service’s aircraft of choice going into the competition.
As such, the Sept. 24 contract announcement is a major victory for the Boeing-Leonardo team, which received an initial $375 million for the first four helicopters and the integration of military-specific items needed to bring the AW139 to the Air Force’s requirements.
The Air Force touted the program of an example of cost savings, noting that the service was able to bring down the price of the program from its original $4.1 billion cost estimate.
"Strong competition drove down costs for the program, resulting in $1.7 billion in savings to the taxpayer,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement.
The Air Force plans on buying 84 new helicopters over the course of the program, with the first aircraft being delivered in fiscal year 2021.
“We’re grateful for the Air Force’s confidence in our MH-139 team,” said David Koopersmith, vice president and general manager for Boeing’s vertical lift business. “The MH-139 exceeds mission requirements, it’s also ideal for VIP transport, and it offers the Air Force up to $1 billion in acquisition and lifecycle cost savings.”
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group, said the win was, for Leonardo, “the U.S. helicopter market breakthrough they’ve been waiting for” and “a solid endorsement of [Boeing’s] plan to work with other airframe partners.”
Now that a winner has been declared, the biggest remaining question is whether the other competitors will protest the decision, a likely possibility given that the Huey replacement program is one of the few remaining ongoing aircraft contests planned by the Air Force for some time.
Throughout the course of the competition, Sikorsky’s HH-60U was seen as the frontrunner by analysts who pointed to the fact that the Air Force had initially sought to sole-source UH-60 Black Hawks to replace the UH-1N. The U-model was differentiated from the Army’s Black Hawk by the addition of a rescue hoist and electro-optical sensor, among other modifications.
“We are disappointed in the U.S. Air Force’s decision but remain confident the HH-60U Black Hawk is the strongest, most capable solution for the UH-1N Huey Replacement Program’s critical no-fail mission of protecting our nation’s nuclear missile silos and supporting the continuity-of-government mission,” Steve Callaghan, Sikorsky’s vice president for business development.
Sierra Nevada Corp. also proposed a version of the Black Hawk that it designated “Sierra Force.” However, it looked to cut down costs even further than Sikorsky by taking used UH-60As that had been divested by the Army and upgrading them to a modified UH-60L configuration with new General Electric T-701D engines, updated avionics and a glass cockpit.
“Sierra Nevada Corporation recognizes that the U.S. Air Force has selected an alternative provider for the UH-1N Huey Replacement Program contract” the company said in a statement. “While we are disappointed by the announcement, SNC and the Sierra Force helicopter team will review the notification letter and we will elaborate further on future options for rotary-wing aircraft capabilities once complete.”
Throughout the competition, company officials from Boeing-Leonardo team claimed the companies would be able to offer the most low-cost aircraft by being able to bank on the efficiencies that come along with large-scale commercial production.
The new MH-139 will be able to carry nine fully loaded troops. The aircraft should be able to hit a 135 knot cruise speed and fly at least three hours — and a minimum distance of 225 nautical miles — without needing to be refueled.
The Air Force has relied on UH-1N Hueys since the 1970s for missions that run the gamut from personnel and VIP transport to protecting the ICBM fields that run along the northern tier of the continental United States.
But an effort to replace the aging aircraft has drawn out for about a decade, with the Air Force initially trying to sole source UH-60s in the early 2010s before pivoting to a new program called Common Vertical Lift Support Platform in 2011, which was later cancelled. The Air Force finally restarted its Huey replacement program in 2015, deciding in 2016 to make it a competitive procurement, according to Flight Global.
Throughout the process, U.S. Strategic Command leaders lamented the pace of the program, with current head Gen. John Hyten saying in August that, "we are going to get a new helicopter if I have to die trying or if I have to kill somebody to do it,” according to Military.com.
Even after the latest iteration of the program was restarted, it has not been without hiccups. The Air Force was forced to push back the release of its final request for proposals because none of the interested bidders could offer an off-the-shelf solution that met its threshold requirements. The delay gave companies a couple extra months to do non-developmental integration for mission-specific equipment like a rescue hoist.
Then, in February, Lockheed Martin filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office over a disagreement over technical data rights—a rare legal dispute filed before the service had decided on the winner. Lockheed argued that, in its solicitation, the Air Force used too broad a definition of “operations, maintenance, installation and training data,” which by statute is turned over to the government for its unlimited use.
The GAO ultimately dismissed Lockheed’s protest in May after the Air Force sent a letter to competitors clarifying that it would not compel companies to hand over software code or proprietary data. However, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson acknowledged that the protest had affected the service’s plan to award the Huey replacement contract in June, with a fall 2018 date more likely.
Modified 9/25/18 at 10:00 a.m. EST: Updated story to add statement from SNC.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.