CSAR-X to CRH -- Then There Was One

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Protesting pays. That's one lesson that could be drawn from U.S. Air Force efforts to competitively procure replacements for its Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) helicopters.

HH-60G Pave Hawks (photo: U.S. Air Force)

Boeing, Bell Boeing, EADS North America, and Northrop Grumman teamed with AgustaWestland, have all decided not to bid for the Air Force's 112-aircraft, $6.85 billion Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program after analyzing the request for proposals. That leaves Sikorsky, teamed with Lockheed Martin, as the only bidder.

It was Sikorsky and Lockheed, then competing separately, that successfully protested the November 2006 award of the CSAR-X contract to Boeing and the HH-47 Chinook, leading to cancellation of the 141-aircraft, $10 billion program in November 2009. CSAR-X was due to achieve initial operational capability right around now.

This time around, Sikorsky and Lockheed are expected to offer the HH-60M CSAR version of the Army's UH-60M Black Hawk, which the Air Force has already purchased in small numbers to top up its Pave Hawk fleet. In the CSAR-X days, the HH-60 was judged too small for the mission and Sikorsky instead offered the H-92.

After the cancellation of CSAR-X, the Air Force floated the idea of a directed purchase of HH-60Ms to recapitalize the Pave Hawk fleet, but was shot down. So instead it came up with the CRH competition, which looks to be closely modeled on the restaged KC-X tanker contest.

The revised KC-X program sought to avoid the protests that sank the original competition by strictly limiting the credits available for exceeding the baseline requirements. This turned the contest on its head. Where the larger Airbus A330-based KC-45 won the first round, the smaller Boeing 767-based KC-46 won the rematch.

The same appears to have happened with CRH. Where the CSAR-X competition allowed Boeing to score highly with its larger, more capable, but more expensive HH-47, the CRH RFP sets out source-selection criteria that give little or no credit for exceeding the baseline requirements.

For Boeing with the CH-47, Bell Boeing with the V-22 Osprey and Northrop with AgustaWestland's AW101 there was no incentive to offer a rotorcraft with any capability more than the minimum set out in the RFP. The same likely applies to EADS, which was looking at offering the EC725 or NH90.

What procurement watchers will make of this, I'm not sure. There will be no competition, unless someone comes out of the woodwork, but the Air Force should still get the cheapest combat-rescue helicopter out there, if only because the HH-60M already exists. But it is also the smallest.

And if someone can calculate the amount of money the Air Force has spent getting to this point, I would like to hear from them.

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