The U.S. Air Force is assessing whether the health of three UH-1Ns from the Marine Corps is suitable to introduce them — and as many as 22 more — into the nuclear support and executive lift helicopter fleet, says Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.

The service is considering use of the old Marine Corps helicopters in lieu of pursuing a Common Vertical Lift Support Program (CVLSP) procurement. Though long requested by a string of four-star officers charged with overseeing the Air Force’s nuclear stockpile, CVLSP has never gotten off to a proper start owing to higher service procurement priorities.

“Can we take risk for a couple of more years? Probably,” Kowalski told reporters during the annual Air Force Association conference here.

Air Force officials already are tearing down and inspecting the first three Marine Corps Hueys. Kowalski says the intent is to bring them up to the Air Force UH-1N configuration. “Right now it looks like they are in really good shape,” he says. Air Force officials say they plan to take on up to 22 Marine Corps Hueys, made by Bell, by fiscal 2014.

Ultimately, Kowaslki says, the entire Huey fleet must be upgraded with night-vision capabilities and some safety equipment to accomplish its mission, though the Heuy still lacks the range and payload needed for the nuclear support role. “We’ve got a helicopter that works; it just doesn’t necessarily meet the requirements,” Kowalski says, noting that the mission-capable rate is among the highest in the Air Force inventory. A tactical response team, which is called into action in the event of an emergency at the ICBM fields, requires three Hueys to transport. A Huey is unable to traverse the largest missile field fully loaded without refueling.

Kowalski says the night vision equipment is needed because he has ordered changes in how the helicopter support role is accomplished. For the first time ever, each of the Air Force’s three ICBM wings has a single Huey on 24-hr. alert. Kowalski calls this an interim capability until more aircraft or a better system can be introduced into the fleet.

Kowalski says the CVLSP effort, envisioned as a “relatively inexpensive” buy, got off track when it was coupled years ago with the Air Force’s defunct plans to buy a combat search and rescue helicopter at “higher cost.”

Last year, Kowalski was pushing to have the Air Force sole-source a purchase of UH-60Ms from Sikorsky. But the Air Force determined that a competition would be needed if it is to proceed with a CVLSP buy.