The Air Force could spend between $800 million and $900 million on a sole source-like procurement to replace the nuclear mission portion of its aging UH-1N helicopter fleet, according to a key officer.

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch told a House panel March 16 that the service would purchase 41 helicopters to support the nuclear mission. Bunch said March 10 at the Credit Suisse/McAleese and Associates conference in Washington that the Air Force was considering using an Economy Act Determination and Finding (D&F), which he called “very different” from a sole source, to procure the nuclear mission UH-1Ns, in addition to a traditional competition.

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

Bunch said a D&F gives the Air Force an avenue to reach out to an already existing contract and “do some other things.” Air Force spokesman Ann Stefanek said Monday the service had not decided which procurement avenue to pursue.

A key lawmaker was skeptical of the Air Force potentially procuring the nuclear portion of the UH-1N replacement without a full and open competition. House Armed Services (HASC) Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Ranking Member Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) during the hearing said she hoped the Air Force would procure the helicopters via a competitive procurement. Bunch said about five companies have expressed interest in competing for the UH-1N nuclear spinoff. Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] develops the UH-1N while Sikorsky [LMT] and Airbus are also potential competitors.

Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes said during the hearing the Air Force has taken some mitigation steps in the short term before its acquisition decision, including having forward area refueling points that allow more time on station and further range. He said the UH-1N nuclear mission includes both convoy escort and the response mission.

The Economy Act authorizes agencies to enter into agreements to obtain supplies or services from another agency. Each order shall be supported by a D&F that includes a statement that at least one of the following circumstances applies: the acquisition will appropriately be made under an existing contract of the servicing agency, entered into before placement of the order, to meet the requirements of the servicing agency for the same or similar supplies or services; the servicing agency has the capability or expertise to enter into a contract for such supplies or services that is not available within the requesting agency; and that the servicing agency is specifically authorized by law or regulation to purchase such supplies or services on behalf of other agencies.

The Air Force is considering accelerating procurement of the UH-1N nuclear portion because it sees a capability gap in the time to respond and carriage capability. Air Force spokeswoman Carla Pampe said earlier this month that the UH-1N often performs a task force mission responding to an incident in the ICBM field that requires the transport of airmen.