Mostly because it looks like they’re the only ones submitting a bid. It’s been about 25 years since the HH-60G Pavehawk entered Air Force service. A variant of the UH-60 Blackhawk, the Pavehawk is designed to penetrate enemy territory to retrieve downed aircrews. As such, it’s the successor the the Jolly Greens of Vietnam War fame. And while Special Operatons aren’t its prime role, it has been tasked to do that from time to time as well. In recent years, Pavehawks have supplemented Army MEDEVAC helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq by providing CASEVAC support.
The Pavehawk has a record to be proud of. But it is also getting old. Further, it has always been hampered by a relatively short range and endurance, and limited cabin space and lifting capacity. All the extras above a normal Blackhawk come directly out of its total lifting capacity.
For over a decade now, the Air Force has been searching for a replacement for its fleet of Pavehawks. Under a program known as CSAR-X (Combat Search and Rescue-Next) Boeing, Lockheed/EADS, and Sikorsky submitted bids. Boeing’s entry was based on the CH-47, Lockheed/EADS submitted a version of the VH-71 chosen for the Marine One program*, and Sikorsky entered a variant of their S-92 helicopter.
After a competition, Boeing’s entry of a modified CH-47 was selected. It was in fact to be a tailored version of the already in production MH-47G used by the Army for Special Operations.
But protests to the GAO and in court over the contracting process led to the contract being cancelled.
Three years down the road, the Air Force is still faced with the need to replace it’s Pavehawks. And so the Combat Rescue Helicopter competition has opened. But Boeing and Lockheed/EADS, having been burned once, aren’t going to play this time. Yes, the program is potentially quite lucrative, with plans for 112 airframes, and an eventual total of $15 billion in contracts. But despite the emphasis by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, insisting CRH is a top priority, there’s a very good chance that austere budgets will see the program scaled back or even cancelled. And both Boeing and Lockheed/EADS have other, cheaper ways of keeping their baseline production going. Boeing will be building CH-47Fs and MH-47Gs for the Army for some time, and looks well placed to pick up some foreign sales as well. LMT/EADS will continue to partner for EH101 sales and manufacturing for European and other foreign markets.
So the only competitor left is Sikorsky and its S-92. So what is the S-92? So much of the basic S-70/H-60 Blackhawk design was just right, Sikorsky decided to leverage the basics into a larger, heavier helicopter. Mating a new fuselage to the rotor system and dynamic components of the Blackhawk produced a much roomier helicopter. The S-92 is in production for various government and civil operators around the world. About 130 have been built so far. The military variant has a ramp at the rear of the fuselage for ease of loading and unloading.
Now, the S-92 isn’t a bad helicopter.** But the arcane world of US defense procurement has made it such that a virtual off-the-shelf purchase of a proven design in which virtually all the difficult integration work for features such as Terrain Following Radar has been done, isn’t suitable. Any person with common sense would simply buy MH-47Gs, either from Boeing, or even from Army stocks. But layer upon layer of laws and regulation to prevent graft and reduce wasteful spending means that a five minute decision has instead lead to untold millions and a decade spent just getting to the point where the least desirable of the three initial entrants will likely be selected.
*The VH-71 is based on the EADS EH101 medium lift helicopter. The VH-71 program was plagued by poor management, shifting requirements after contract signing, and the resulting spiraling cost increases. Eventually that program was cancelled and the few “vanilla” airframes bought were sold to the Canadians.
**Well, there are apparently issues with the main gearbox. One requirement for FAA certification is that a gearbox has to be able to run for 30 minutes after a loss of oil pressure. But the S-92 got around this requirement by “proving” that loss of oil pressure in the gearbox was extremely unlikely. Since then, two S-92s have been lost to main gearbox oil pressure loss. Also, I’ve heard that the Canadian CH-148 Cyclone program has been something of a disaster.
Via War News Updates