WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army has taken a first step toward buying more Lakota helicopters by issuing a sources-sought notice to industry Jan. 4, a year after appealing a court decision that barred the service from procuring 16 Lakotas for its training fleet.
The notice posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website states the Army is conducting market research to determine available contractors capable of supplying the Army with up to 35 Federal Aviation Administration-certified EC-145 aircraft — the commercial name for the LUH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter.
The Army is moving forward, likely because Congress mandated the service buy 28 more Lakotas in its fiscal 2017 Defense Appropriations Act in support of mission requirements at Fort Rucker, Alabama, the combat training centers and the Army’s test and evaluation center.
The Lakota was primarily used in the continental United States for such missions as border security and other noncombat roles, but its manufacturer Airbus sought to make it the Army’s next Armed Scout helicopter in 2012. The Army scrapped its plans to buy a new scout aircraft in 2013 and instead chose to fill that gap with AH-64 Attack helicopters paired with unmanned aircraft as part of a major restructuring of its entire aviation fleet.
But the Lakota didn’t lose out then. Instead, the Army decided to retire its TH-67 trainer helicopters and replace them with Lakotas. The decision was not without controversy, as many questioned why the Army would choose a more expensive, dual-engine helicopter over a more simple, single-engine training solution.
Nonetheless, the Army moved forward with plans to transfer some Lakotas from the Army National Guard and buy additional aircraft from Airbus to fill out the training fleet.
But AgustaWestland sued the U.S. Army in September 2014, filing a premature complaint over a standard sources sought notice the Army issued in February 2016 for 16 Lakotas for its training fleet.
The court paused the case until the Army filed a justification and approval document that stated why it needed to sole-source the helicopter buy to Airbus. The company owns the technical data package to build the aircraft.
AgustaWestland filed a supplemental complaint that contended the new role as trainer for the Lakota exceeded the scope of the original 2006 contract with Airbus and restricted competition. The company also argued the Army failed to develop an adequate plan for acquisition of a training helicopter.
The court issued injunctive relief for AgustaWestland in August 2016 that meant the Army could not move forward with its planned helicopter purchase. The judge told the Army it could conduct a new competition, reissue a justification and approval addressing deficiencies identified by the court, or not proceed with procurement.
The court has yet to rule on the appeal, but since the lawsuit only addressed the 16 helicopters in 2016, it can be interpreted that the injunction does not apply to other procurement years.
Meanwhile, the Army has already begun a training program using Lakotas at Fort Rucker. Because of the natural transition between trainers combined with the inability to buy more aircraft due to the lawsuit, the Army has had to keep some legacy trainer helicopters in its fleet at the initial entry rotary-wing training schoolhouse, which have generated extra costs.
And the inability to buy more Lakotas has left the future of its production line in Columbus, Mississippi, uncertain as well.
Airbus Helicopters plans to respond to the Army’s sources sought, according to a company statement provided to Defense News, “which is the first step in meeting a well-documented, long-standing requirement for Lakota helicopters that our customer has said is essential to meet its readiness needs.”
Airbus has delivered more than 400 aircraft on time and on cost since Lakota was selected more than 10 years ago, the statement notes.
The company added that “significant obstacles have been laid in the war fighter’s path during the Army’s past efforts to meet its requirements for more Lakotas, and those obstacles have in turn jeopardized the livelihoods of all the American workers who build the Lakota in Mississippi.”
Roughly 40 percent of the plant’s workforce are veterans.
“That workforce,” the company said, “ended 2017 wondering if the new year would bring them unemployment. A new contract for them would mean they can continue to build on their unbroken record of on-time, on-cost deliveries to the Army.”
The Army plans to move fast, according to the sources-sought notice, stating all interested parties should submit responses identifying capabilities to provide Lakotas within a week of the posting.