The Air Force is considering sole sourcing a portion of the UH-1N replacement program to fill an urgent need for nuclear mission helicopters, according to a key official.

Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Darlene Costello told a Senate panel Tuesday that the service asked U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) and Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) to outline the “criticality of their requirements” so acquisition officials can outline which helicopters need to be replaced immediately, as opposed to over the long term. Costello said officials were due to report back to her in the next couple weeks and then she would make a decision on the way forward.

Bell Helicopter's UH-1N helicopter. Photo: Air Force.
Bell Helicopter’s UH-1N helicopter. Photo: Air Force.

Air Force spokesman Ann Stefanek said the Air Force wants to finalize its UH-1N replacement strategy in the April or May timeframe. She declined to provide further details.

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch testified Tuesday the potential sole source would not be for the entire UH-1N replacement program, just a portion.

Bunch added that the Air Force sees a capability gap with the UH-1N in the time to respond and carriage capability. AFGSC spokeswoman Carla Pampe said the UH-1N often performs a response task force mission where if there is an incident in the ICBM field, the UH-1N carries out airmen to respond.

A key lawmaker greeted the potential sole source news with skepticism. Senate Armed Services (SASC) Airland Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wondered what necessitated a sole source contract as he said a requirement for a helicopter to fly long distance with heavy loads is pretty traditional.

Cotton also asked the Air Force if it would be prepared to present the subcommittee with “overwhelming evidence” that a sole source award would provide best value to the taxpayer. Cotton said a request for information (RFI) issued last year signified the Air Force’s intention to compete the program. In response, Costello said one of the potential courses of action includes buying aircraft off an existing contract as opposed to doing a whole new contract.

Bell Helicopter [TXT] develops the UH-1N while Sikorsky [LMT] and Airbus are also potential competitors. Airbus spokesman James Darcy said the company responded to the RFI, but he declined to provide details. Bell spokesman Andy Woodward also said the company responded to the RFI and also declined to provide details. Sikorsky spokeswoman Caroline Dennis said the company will be actively pursuing the UH-1N replacement program and is ready to support aircraft deliveries off a hot production line to fully meet Air Force requirements for its missile site and utility support missions.

The Air Force requested nearly $32 million for UH-1N replacement in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, $18 million in procurement funding and $14 million in research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funds. The Air Force anticipates requesting $2.5 billion over the life of the UH-1N replacement program to purchase 72 aircraft, a dramatic increase over the $980 million the Air Force expected in its FY ’16 request to spend over the life of the program. The Air Force anticipates requesting $171 million in FY ’18 to purchase four aircraft and $224 million in FY ’19 to purchase six aircraft as its ramps up procurement of the aircraft (Defense Daily, February 22).