In an upset victory, the U.S. Air Force has selected the team-up of American plane-maker Boeing and Italian defense contractor Leonardo and their MH-139 helicopter as the replacement for the service’s aging UH-1N Hueys. The new choppers will support the service’s security forces elements charged with guarding America’s nuclear missile silos, as well as units that conduct VIP transport, training, local base rescue, and other utility roles in Washington, D.C. and other locations in the United States.
The Pentagon announced the deal in its daily contracting announcement on Sept. 24, 2018. The firm, fixed-price deal is worth more than $375.5 million and covers the first four MH-139 helicopters, which the Air Force expects to take delivery of in 2021. If the service exercises all of its options, the full value of the contract could be approximately $2.38 billion and would cover work through 2031.
This would include the purchase of up to 84 MH-139s in total, as well as training systems, other equipment, and support services. Boeing and Leonardo will conduct the majority of the work at facilities in Ridley Park and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Strong competition drove down costs for the program, resulting in $1.7 billion in savings to the taxpayer,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a separate statement on Sept. 24, 2018. The original cost estimate for the program to replace the existing UH-1Ns was more than $4 billion.
“A safe, secure and effective nuclear enterprise is job one,” U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, added. “It is imperative that we field a capable and effective helicopter to replace UH-1Ns providing security for our ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and nuclear deterrence operations.”
The MH-139 is a variant of the AW139, which Italy’s Augusta and Bell Helicopter, now part of Textron, originally developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Augusta eventually morphed first into AugustaWestland and then into Leonardo Helicopters. In 2005, AugustaWestland had bought out Bell's share of the program.
Variants of the twin-engine AW139 are presently in service with the Italian military, as well as other military forces, government agencies, and civilian operators around the world, including the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The Italian government also flies VIP AW139s on behalf of the Vatican and the Pope. HeliVert, a joint venture between AgustaWestland and Russian Helicopters, license-produced examples in Russia, some of which ended up in that country's presidential helicopter fleet, shuttling President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials around.
The MH-139 for the Air Force will come with sensor turret under the nose with electro-optical and infrared cameras and provisions for machine gun mounts on either side of the helicopter, among other features. Depending on a particular unit's intended missions, sub-variants might have hoists for search and rescue missions in difficult to reach areas and other mission equipment.
The Air Force has been trying to replace its Vietnam War-era UH-1Ns for decades. In 2010, the service started the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform program, only to cancel it the next year, In 2015, it finally rebooted the effort and issued a formal call for bids in 2016.
Boeing and Leonardo’s helicopter beat out two separate UH-60 Black Hawk-based offerings from Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation. Many had seen Sikorsky’s HH-60U as the front-runner, as the Air Force already operates a small number of those aircraft, reportedly to provide security, local base rescue, and other support services at various test ranges, including the Nevada Test and Training Range, or NTTR, and the top-secret Area 51 test facility.
Sierra Nevada’s pitch, initially known as the Force Hawk, and then rebranded as the Sierra Force, would have consisted of ex-U.S. Army UH-60As rebuilt to a configuration similar to the more recent UH-60V conversion. These helicopters would have featured more powerful General Electric T-701D engines, a full glass cockpit, and updated avionics.
Airbus had also put forward a version of its H-145 helicopter, a training and light utility variant of which is in U.S. Army and Navy service as the UH-72A Lakota. Bell offered its UH-1Y Venom helicopter, which has seen combat with the U.S. Marine Corps. The Air Force rejected both of these proposals earlier in the contracting process.
But the MH-139, which is smaller and lighter than the UH-60-series, offered commercial-off-the-shelf airframe that required minimal modifications to perform the missions that the Air Force's present assigns to its UH-1Ns. "It’s still going to be cheaper to buy, it’s going to be cheaper to operate, and over the long term, a lot cheaper for the Air Force to sustain," Rick Lemaster, the head of Boeing's UH-1N capture team, had told Jane's 360 in July 2018.
As noted, the MH-139’s most visible mission will be patrolling ICBM silos and responding to any threats to those sites. They will also conduct convoy escort missions in and around those facilities, including protecting the transportation of nuclear warheads.
However, the majority of the Air Force’s existing UH-1Ns actually perform a host of other duties. While 25 are assigned to the IBCM fields, another 20 are part of the 1st Helicopter Squadron situated at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C., where they are on hand to fly VIPs around and perform other emergency missions. One of which includes transporting select members of the U.S. government to safety during a crisis as part of the federal government's continuity of government operations plans.
Another 13 active Hueys are assigned to Air Education and Training Command and Air Force Materiel Command to help with training, local base rescue, flight test, and other missions. In total, the Air Force expects to replace around 60 UH-1Ns at seven different locations across the United States.
There is no plan, as of yet, to replace a small number of Hueys attached the 459th Airlift Squadron at Yokota Air Base in Japan. However, it's worth noting that if the Air Force decides to buy the full number of MH-139s, it will not be a one-for-one replacement, so that could change in the future.
This is a major win for Boeing, which also just picked up the contract to build the U.S. Navy's MQ-25A Stingray tanker drone. The company is also still in the running for the Air Force's even more highly anticipated and lucrative T-X jet trainer contract, which the service could award before the end of September 2018. The Chicago-headquartered plane-maker has teamed up with Swedish firm Saab in its bid for the T-X contract. Leonardo has also made a T-X offer, but directly through its own U.S.-based subsidiary Leonardo DRS.
It’s also important to point out that both Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada will have an opportunity to contest the award if they feel the Air Force acted improperly. This could delay the process or even up-end it entirely if federal watchdogs decide the contracting process was flawed.
In February 2018, Lockheed Martin had actually filed an unusual pre-award protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), complaining that the Air Force had made unreasonable demands for technical data rights as part of the contract. The whole matter became moot in May 2018, when the Air Force eliminated the requirements requiring the winner to give up rights to software code and other proprietary information. This had forced the service to push back awarding the contract from July until now.
If everything goes according to plan, the Air Force will finally be able to start replacing its antiquated UH-1Ns starting in the next two years.
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