The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Questionable Justification for Noncompetitive Huey Replacement

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


The Air Force currently operates 62 Bell UH-1N Twin Huey helicopters, which serve two purposes: they provide security for the country’s nuclear missile fields, and perform the continuity of government mission, whereby designated senior officials would be transported out of the nation’s capital in the event of an emergency.

The 45 year-old Hueys are the oldest helicopters in the Air Force.  The service first identified the need to replace them in 2004, and now appears to be considering waiving   procurement laws requiring competition and using authority under the obscure Economy Act of 1932 to claim there is an urgent national security need to purchase new helicopters. 

In other words, something that could have been done in the regular course of the procurement process is now being declared essential so the rules can be bent toward a favored contractor.

This “urgency” is due in part to the poor performance of the Hueys during Mighty Guardian in 2015, an annual security exercise at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.  A February 29, 2016 Congressional Quarterly article, which included interviews with lawmakers and their aides, stated, “Since Sept. 11, 2001, the requirements for defending missile fields from terrorists have grown, and so has the number of people assigned to the mission, the weight of their gear and the kind of fighting they have to be ready to do … the old Hueys have not kept pace.”

In fiscal year (FY) 2016, the Air Force requested $980 million, which would have been sufficient to replace the Hueys with retired UH-60A Black Hawks.  No final decision was made to proceed with that procurement.  The President’s FY 2017 budget reversed course, opting instead for a five-year, $2.5 billion program to purchase new helicopters, a 155 percent increase in cost.

According to a February 18, 2016 Flightglobal.com article, the new helicopter could be “the latest Sikorsky UH-60M, Airbus UH-72A Lakota or Bell Helicopter UH-1Y.  AgustaWestland, the rotorcraft division of Finmeccanica, is also considering putting forward its AW139, assembled in America.”

But the article also noted that “USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements Lt Gen Mike Holmes confirmed on 18 February that of the various acquisition strategies being considered, one would split off the nuclear security mission requirement and perhaps sole-source it to one manufacturer.”  His comments echoed those of Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at a February 10, 2016, Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing, when she said,  “One possibility would be to address the most urgent piece of this requirement first, possibly even through a sole source situation, because … we could acquire the helicopters more quickly.”

Pouncing on this opening to avoid competition, 15 members of Congress sent a letter on February 26, 2016 to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), urging the committee to insert language in the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act directing the DOD to purchase new UH-60M Black Hawks for the nuclear security mission. 

Predictably, a March 14, 2016 Bloomberg article reported that many of the cosigners have parochial interests in the UH-60Ms, including members of Congress from Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, which have missile fields, and legislators from Connecticut, where the helicopters are manufactured.

However, at least one member of Congress has raised red flags about the need to forgo competition.  During the February 10, 2016 hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) questioned whether a noncompetitive contract was necessary, asking Secretary Lee James:  “If a decision to proceed with a sole source award for the helicopter replacement program, are you prepared to present this committee with the overwhelming evidence that’s necessary that such an award would actually provide best value to the taxpayer?”

In September 2010, then-Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ashton Carter released a report calling for increased competition within DOD contracting.  Defense Secretary Carter should direct the Air Force to heed this advice, and Congress should reject calls for a sole source exception to the procurement process, instead insisting on competitive bidding to replace the Air Force Hueys.

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