Updated 9/21/16 with comment from Bunch

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The US Air Force is considering a requirement that a replacement for the UH-1N Huey helicopter fleet must carry more troops than the current design, according to the service's top nuclear official — a requirement that could give a big boost to one particular industry bidder.

Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters Monday at the annual Air Force Association conference that he wants a Huey replacement that "can carry more people, go further and get there faster than what we're currently able to do."

Asked specifically if the new aircraft would be able to carry more than nine security-force personnel when equipped, Rand was evasive, but indicated that was something being heavily weighed.

"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," Rand added. "The new helicopter [will] carry more people on it than what we can carry on the UH-1N."

Click here for our coverage of the 2016 Air Force Association conference. 

Two days later, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force acquisition head, clarified that nine is a "threadhold" for the requirement, meaning that while more space could be offered by the competitors, nine troops is enough.

The Air Force released a request for information (RFI) on Sept. 9 to industry, with a response due by Sept. 26, 2016. The RFI solicitation says the service plans to buy up to 84 aircraft — an increase from the 72 that service officials had said they wanted in previous months — to replace its fleet of Hueys, which are more than 40 years old.

The Air Force anticipates a contract award in early fiscal 2018 and first deliveries starting no later than 12 months after the contract is awarded.

Initially, the Air Force was considering a sole-source selection of Sikorsky's Black Hawk design for the requirement. However, that plan triggered complaints from Congress, after which the service declared it would hold a "full and open" competition.

But if the size requirement did indeed require fitting more than nine security troops, it largely eliminates potential challengers and leaves the Black Hawk as the clear winner, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.

He points out that such a requirement would force AgustaWestland to pitch either the AW149 or AW101 — "the latter is too large, the former hasn't been launched yet." As for Airbus, "it would need to pitch the Super Puma, which is in the Black Hawk price and size class," Aboulafia said.

It could be déjà vu for the helicopter market. In 2012, the Air Force talked extensively about how important it was that the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program be a wide-open competition, even though Sikorsky was seen as the favored company.

After the requirements were released on that program, the other competitors all dropped out, with many complaining the Air Force had so narrowly defined the requirements that only Sikorsky could win.

"This could easily wind up like CRH, with the Air Force finding its own convoluted way to get to a sole-source Black Hawk outcome. The Air Force had wanted to simply go this way directly, but for political reasons moved towards a competition," Aboulafia said. "If restricted to models seating more than nine people, that would give the Black Hawk an enormous advantage."

The Huey is used to both provide overwatch during the transport of nuclear weapons and to rapidly deploy security forces in case of an incident at a facility. Rand emphasized that the current fleet is meeting the requirement, but said that the age of the aircraft limits those capabilities — and drives up costs.

"It’s not as efficient as if we had a new helicopter, because we’re doing a variety of things to counter the lack of distance that the UH-1N can go, the lack of people it can carry, we’re having to do other things that if we had a new helicopter we could free up more assets and be more efficient," Rand said.

Rand also said that the readiness rate on the aircraft remain good, thanks to the maintenance teams working on them. But he noted: "This is a 1970s aircraft."

"Are you driving a 1970 car?" he asked rhetorically. "They are hard to maintain. Everything has a beginning and an end to it. It’s not like we didn’t get our money’s worth out of the UH-1N."

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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