A series of protest-free wins for major Air Force aircraft programs are a welcome sight for both the service and contract winner Boeing [BA], but whether the trend sticks for future programs remains to be seen.

Since late August, Boeing surpassed the expectations of more than a few analysts to win three major aircraft programs: the Navy’s MQ-25 next-generation autonomous aerial refueler, along with the Air Force’s UH-1N “Huey” helicopter replacement program – in a partnership with Italy-based Leonardo – and next-generation advanced pilot trainer – or T-X – program along with teammate Saab. The company was awarded nearly $2 billion in initial awards for the three programs, and the T-X and Huey replacement programs are expected to be worth billions more by the end of their lifespans.

Boeing's T-X aircraft offering, unveiled in St. Louis on Sept. 13. Photo: Boeing.
Boeing’s T-X aircraft offering, unveiled in St. Louis on Sept. 13. Photo: Boeing.

By early October, each competitor for the T-X and Huey replacement programs announced they would not file a protest against the contract award. Lockheed Martin [LMT] along with teammate Korea Aerospace Industries and Leonardo DRS, a U.S. subsidiary of Leonardo, were in the running for the advanced pilot trainer program, while Lockheed Martin’s subsidiary Sikorsky and Sierra Nevada Corp. [SNC] vied for the chance to supply the UH-1N replacement.

Sometimes the losing competitors of a program opt to protest to get additional information such as pricing intelligence, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense analysis firm in Fairfax, Virginia.

 In the case of the two Air Force programs, it’s unlikely that a protest would reveal any information that wasn’t already known, he noted.

Boeing “went out of their way to be aggressive on price, and the service went out of its way to be transparent on terms and KPPs and other parameters,” he said. “It’s pretty straightforward.”

Air Force leadership has touted its efforts to boost the transparency and communication in acquisition programs, particularly on the high-profile T-X effort. It was considered a “pathfinder” program for transparency with industry, said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Air Force military deputy for acquisition during a September 2018 media briefing at the Pentagon.

“We had frequent engagements with the requirements community to make sure that what we were asking for was something that was doable, and if there were areas that there would be cost drivers, we could have some of those dialogues and we could firm up the requirements to make sure we could make this work,” he said, adding, “Industry knew exactly what we were going to evaluate.”

It may be too soon to determine whether the Air Force can apply the same strategy to future acquisition programs, especially when procuring more advanced technology equipment, Aboulafia noted.

“You can apply it to programs like these, which are small and … more or less a commodity product – training and transport,” he said. “You start applying it to high-science combat aircraft and it runs into trouble fast.”

It is possible that defense companies could become less aggressive about putting their own cash into prototypes for a developmental program, Aboulafia noted.

The fact that the service completed the T-X contract award without a protest filed through the Government Accountability Office “is a testament to the open and transparent dialogue we’ve maintained with industry from the beginning of this process,” said Capt. Hope Cronin, Air Force public affairs officer in an email to Defense Daily. “It’s also a testament to the prowess of the entire acquisition team during source selection, which includes our program managers, contracting officers, budget experts, and lawyers.”

In a statement to Defense Daily Tuesday, Boeing said the transparency provided by the Air Force and its regular engagement with industry was “unparalleled” during the T-X competition. “It allowed us to respond to the Air Force’s specific training requirements, while using the latest design and manufacturing techniques to develop the all-new Boeing T-X.”

The company “appreciated the transparency with which the USAF conducted the UH-1N competition,” said Rick Lemaster, Boeing’s MH-139 capture team lead in a separate email to Defense Daily. “The requirements were well-defined through the draft RFP process and did not change through the evaluation of proposals, resulting in the best value selection by the USAF.”

Tim Owings, executive vice president for Sierra Nevada’s integrated mission systems said in an emailed statement Oct. 17 that Air Force leadership was transparent and communicative throughout the UH-1N competition. “We strongly support collaboration between government and industry and believe it benefits both the warfighter and the taxpayer,” he said. “While we’re disappointed with the outcome in this instance, we have utmost respect for the professionalism of the USAF.”

Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky declined to comment for this article. Leonardo could not respond by Defense Daily’s deadline.

Government contractors typically have 10 days post-contract award announcement to file a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), according to the organization. If a debriefing is requested, they have 10 days post-debriefing to file. The office then has 100 days to respond to the protest, although a 2017 RAND Corp. report titled “Assessing Bid Protests of U.S. Department of Defense Procurements,” found that the majority of cases are resolved within 30 days.

This story has been updated to include comments from Sierra Nevada Corp.