By Marina Malenic

The Air Force last week wrapped up a question-and-answer period that it will use to refine its request for proposals (RFP) for a $15 billion combat, search and rescue (CSAR-X) replacement helicopter competition.

“We are this week answering the final questions from the customer,” Dan Spoor, vice president of CSAR-X for Lockheed Martin [LMT], told reporters during a July 31 site visit in Suffolk, Va.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Frans Jurgens said his company has fielded nearly 1,000 of the “evaluation notices” since the competition was reopened.

“I’m certain our competitors have also dealt with similar numbers of evaluation notices,” he said.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing [BA] and Sikorsky [UTX] are each expected to receive an interim evaluation briefing from Air Force acquisition officials later this month to discuss the final RFP, according to Spoor. The debrief will include information on mission capability, proposal risk, past performance, and cost/price factors, as the Air Force has previously explained (Defense Daily, April 14). It will be based on the service’s evaluation of the proposals and the competitors’ answers to the questions posed during the evaluation notice process.

“By the first week of September, the customer will have all the information needed to make a final selection,” Spoor said.

A contract award could be made in the coming months. Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Karen Platt said on Friday that the service would still “like to award a contract sometime in the fall.”

However, the Pentagon Inspector General is still investigating possible selection process irregularities, and service and Pentagon acquisition officials remain focused on resolving the KC-X aerial refueling tanker acquisition, another contested contract (Defense Daily, July 11). Both issues, as well as the coming change of administrations, could delay the CSAR-X award.

The contractors submitted their latest proposals in January. Boeing initially won the contract for 141 aircraft in November 2006. Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky twice filed protests with the Government Accountability Office, forcing the Air Force to reopen the competition. The GAO sustained the second protest in August 2007. As a result, the program experienced a 9-12 month delay in contract award and a likely slip of Initial Operating Capability from fourth quarter of FY 2012 to fourth quarter of FY 2013.

Lockheed Martin is proposing the HH-71; Sikorsky is bidding its HH-92; and Boeing is offering the HH-47, a version of the Chinook.

Steve Colby, a Lockheed Martin program manager who deals with CSAR-X test and integration, last week told reporters that Boeing and Sikorsky are making what he views as “risky changes” to their platforms in the waning days of the competition.

“This late in the game, [Sikorsky] announced that they’re going to a five-bladed and larger rotor, which requires an extension of the tail boom to accommodate the larger rotor and the torque offset for the tail rotor,” he said. “They’re also talking about changing the size of the sponsons on their fuel tanks. All of those require an upgrade to main gear boxes and input modules. That is a significant technological risk for developing an air frame.”

Sikorsky officials have previously said that their latest CSAR-X proposal differs little from their 2006 bid, with the most significant alteration being a change in the mix of subcontractors and a 40-inch “plug” on the aircraft’s tail intended to enhance performance (Defense Daily, April 14).

Paul Jackson, a Sikorsky spokesman, said last week that the company’s proposal “included these performance-enhancing features long before” the first contract was awarded in November 2006.

“Originally, we offered them as upgrades and then advanced them to the initial, baseline aircraft,” Jackson told Defense Daily on Aug. 1. “As the GAO reported in its decision upholding Sikorsky’s first protest, the Air Force rated our aircraft performance risk as ‘low’ while our competitor received a ‘high’ risk rating.”

Colby also criticized Boeing’s decision to enlarge the cabin door on its aircraft.

“If you look at where their cabin door is–it’s a 48-inch wide door and they’re going to go to a 54-inch–well, that takes it right through the major structural rib that’s behind the existing door frame… which is the location of one of their current gun mounts,” he said. “Also, within the shroud of their sponson, there’s an electrical compartment. All that stuff is going to have to be relocated just to accommodate this simple expansion of the door.”

Colby also noted that the H-47 is not currently flying with an “active and certified” de-icing system.

A spokeswoman for Boeing disputed the characterizations of the changes to the cargo door on its aircraft.

“The airframe modification to incorporate the larger cabin door does not fundamentally require a change in the airframe structural arrangement or the use of advanced materials,” Jenna McMullin told Defense Daily Aug. 1. “The airframe loads, load distribution and the material allowables are all known, making the risk low. The 48-inch door is one of a series of structural changes the H-47 platform has undergone to improve the airframe and meet customer requirements without increasing risk.”

She added that H-47 rotorblades “have been qualified for de-icing, but most users are not currently using them due to the inherent de-icing characteristics of the H-47 design.”

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, is planning to enlarge the windows on its platform. Colby said that enlargement, however, will be done “within the construction and design constraints of the main rib structure, so there’s no major structural change, just the shape of the skin.”

“It’s a matter of cutting a little bit bigger hole for a window,” he said. “The changes are structurally insignificant from my perspective as a test pilot.”

However, the engine will differ on Lockheed Martin’s 2006 offering. Officials previously said the expected 3,000-shaft-horsepower engine is now planned as a 2,500-shaft- horsepower version in the 2008 bid (Defense Daily, April 14).