WASHINGTON — Language in the House version of the defense authorization bill could spell more trouble for the U.S. Air Force's Compass Call crossdeck program.

The House Armed Services Committee, which rolled out its version of the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act over the past week, has included a provision that would block all funding related to Compass Call recapitalization until the Pentagon's top weapon's buyer determines that the U.S. Air Force's acquisition strategy complies with law.

The U.S. Air Force's conflicting statements about the role played by L3 Technologies seem to be the core of the House panel's concerns. L3 has been tasked with integrating the existing EC-130H electronics gear with an airframe of its choosing — a decision some in industry say should rest with the government.

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In a briefing with reporters last week, a House aide stressed that lawmakers are not opposed to the choice of L3 as prime contractor but have questions about the acquisition strategy itself.

"We're a little bit confused about what their acquisition strategy is, so we want AT&L to tell us it's a sound strategy," the aide said.

"[The U.S. Air Force] said they are going to now contract with a lead systems integrator, then it became a systems integrator, whatever that means. So we're just confused by that. It's not meant to say we're unsupportive of the program."

Before the restrictions on Compass Call become law, both the House and Senate must agree on a single version of the defense authorization bill. The Senate version of the bill has not yet been released in full, and it is not immediately clear whether it contains similar language.

HASC’s concerns are the latest blow to the beleaguered program, which has been beset with various problems over the past year. The U.S. Air Force appeared to be moving on with its crossdeck strategy this spring, after a protest by Bombardier was thrown out because it was entered prematurely.

Then in May, Boeing and Bombardier filed separate protests with the Government Accountability Office, throwing another wrench into the acquisition. Both companies argued that current requirements favor Gulfstream’s G550 aircraft and that L3’s relationship with Gulfstream could present a conflict of interest.

The GAO has since denied the U.S. Air Force's request to dismiss Bombardier's second protest, said Stéphane Villeneuve, Bombardier's vice president of specialized aircraft.

In an interview with Defense News, Villeneuve hinted that Bombardier’s argument to GAO could also involve questions about the legality of the U.S. Air Force’s acquisition strategy, similar to HASC’s own concerns.

"Without going into the legalities of it, we believe the choosing of a platform is inherently a government function. So whether it can be delegated to a third party is an argument in itself," he said.

Meanwhile, Air Force officials have said that maintaining its current acquisition strategy is critical to accomplish the crossdeck as quickly as possible. L3 has manufactured many Compass Call subsystems and had long played a systems integrator role on the original aircraft, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s top uniformed acquisition official has said.

"We are not stepping out of this and just watching this process play out," Bunch said. "We will thoroughly review their aircraft selection decision to ensure that it was comprehensive, impartial and compliant with all the applicable statutes and regulations."

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.

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