By Ann Roosevelt

The Army this month turned over the first of four UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) component.

“They’ve already got 16 A [Black Hawk] models, and they’re buying now four of the M models,” Brig. Gen. William Crosby, program executive officer Aviation, told Defense Daily. “As we’re delivering these four new M models, we’re also rebuilding their 16 A models as well…when we get through with them they’ll be upgraded to L models.”

The four UH-60M Black Hawks will be delivered by July 2010.

Produced by Sikorsky [UTX], the M model is the newest Black Hawk configuration with improved avionics, airframe and propulsion.

The procurement helps the Army because the buy “helps stabilize our workforce and allows us to maintain a steady capacity at the plant,” Crosby said. “We’re able to feed them in based on their budget and their dollar availability…so they get them fairly quickly.”

CBP will benefit from Army Black Hawk work because the service is not solely building the M model.

“We will have L models for the foreseeable future,” he said. “They will get the benefit of us continuing to maintain and sustain the configuration. That’s why I’m always a big advocate for our allies and other government agencies to buy the same things we’re buying because they get the benefit of us maintaining and managing obsolescence for them.”

In Crosby’s office, the Utility Program Manager buys Black Hawks for everyone in the Defense Department and other government agencies, to include CBP as well as allies and foreign countries.

Overseeing all these procurements is Lt. Col. Norbert Vergez, product manager for UH-60 A-L models, who works under Col. Neil Thurgood, project manager for Utility Helicopters.

The CBP Black Hawks do have some unique equipment for its border protection mission, carried out in partnership between the Army Aviation and Missile Command and the Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM). RDECOM’s subordinate, the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), teamed with the Utility Helicopter Project Office to integrate CBP mission-specific equipment into the UH-60M.

“They actually were the ones that we went to, as another government agency, to do the modifications for us,” Crosby said. “They saved the government a lot of money, it gave us better oversight and we were able to do it right here locally, those mods for the Customs Border Protection.”

AMRDEC’s Product Integration Facility manages, designs, fabricates, integrates and installs mission kits that include navigation, communication, emergency and environmental controls. Also, the facility teams with the aviation-engineering directorate to obtain the airworthiness release for the aircraft.

“It allows us to ‘own the process’ if you will, so if we want to apply those mods somewhere else, we, the government have paid that cost one time and now we can offer that to others,” he said.

Overall, Crosby sees more interest in U.S. helicopters, as the U.S. upgrades its systems many countries that previously bought U.S. equipment are trying to piggyback and do similar upgrades at the same time as the United States. Some countries are buying new aircraft, for example Canada recently announced it was buying new Chinooks, and working with the State Department, the office is looking at Black Hawks for Mexico.

“Our Foreign Military Sales teams do a lot of travelling to other countries to lay out options to countries. We’re not always the cheapest, but one thing about the U.S. Army aviation, when countries buy from us, they know that system will be sustained by us for the foreseeable future,” Crosby said.

The Army is now examining its programs to see what could be accelerated for inclusion in capability sets to improve current brigade combat teams. Crosby said his office’s biggest contribution there is in RSTA–reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition (RSTA) area with unmanned aerial systems. “It’s hard to accelerate a helicopter program because you’re tied to the production rates that are OEMs can maintain or sustain. They can go faster, but money is tight. We’re being told go faster within the resources you already have.”

While the multi-mission Apache helicopter will eventually have UAV controls, Crosby says there are no plans now to incorporate them in Black Hawks or Chinooks, “but that could easily be something that is added down the road.”

The M program upgrade is part of the helicopter program of record, he said. “We’re trying to make some tough resource decisions right now.”

There is a requirement to increase the number of medical evacuation helicopters and the Army is weighing the issues. “Is the M good enough, do we really need the M upgrade?” Crosby said.

The upgrade would add fly-by-wire, significantly increasing the responsiveness of the airplane, he said. Also it would add Rockwell Collins‘ [COL] Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) cockpit and other things.

The service and the Office of the Secretary of Defense have yet to make a decision. They are mulling whether to buy more of the highly thought of M models in the near term– which are needed–get the MEDEVAC aircraft out, and put off the upgrade for a couple of years, or move ahead with the upgrade.

At an Aug. 19 ceremony at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., Crosby turned over the keys and log book in an official transfer of the UH-60M to John Stanton, executive director, National Air Security Operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of CBP Air and Marine.