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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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Counterpoint: Open Season for Helicopter Competition

Shannon Bower’s commentary on Air Force helicopter programs (see “USAF Combat SAR,” November 2010, page 46) rightly concludes that there is no “Easy Button” when it comes to solving the challenges plaguing defense acquisition professionals in the Pentagon. However, the premise of his opinion piece completely undermines his own point, as he outlines a justification for doing just that: taking the easy way out.

The author starts with a rather scathing indictment of the acting Undersecretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Mr. David Van Buren. It is important to point out that Mr. Van Buren inherited the CSAR-X program, as well as the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform (CVLSP) requirement. It is unfair to so strongly and broadly blame a single individual for the woes of a system that has long fought to balance the needs of the warfighter with the obligation to bring best value to the American taxpayer. It is not easy work and Mr. Bower’s assertion that a public servant is serving in such a thankless job for personal gain does not hold water.

Each of us has a solemn obligation to the men and women serving in our armed forces, an obligation to equip them with the right technology for their missions, as quickly and affordably as possible. The author’s premise that the best way to do that is to avoid competition and sole source billions of dollars of helicopters for critical national security programs runs contrary to our country’s economic model and our Secretary of Defense’s initiatives for this industry.

The need to replace the Air Force’s legacy Hueys for CVLSP, as well as its depleted and antiquated fleet of combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters, are well chronicled. Air Force officials went to great lengths in 2002 and thereafter, justifying the need for a new CSAR aircraft, with great emphasis placed on the desire for a modern helicopter more robust and reliable than the legacy assets, with significantly greater cabin volume. Eight years later, Mr. Bower does not recognize the Air Force’s strong case for the original CSAR-X program, suggesting rather that they settle for what they can get as conveniently as possible.

In terms of CVLSP, the author asserts that the H-60M “could easily fulfill” the requirements for the Air Force Huey replacement program. Mr. Bower is correct in the same way I would be correct if I said an 18-wheeler “could easily fulfill” my requirement to move a desk, chair and several lamps into my home office. Sure, the 18-wheeler can do the job, but is it what I really need?

Secretary Gates has rightly challenged Pentagon acquisition and industry officials to search for and produce the best solution, considering affordability, fair competition and risk. The author suggests a solution for the CVLSP program that does not represent the benefit of competition and may be excessive for the taxpayer to bear, which is what you have when you replace the aging Huey fleet with the much bigger and more expensive to acquire and operate H-60.

Participants of the U.S. industrial base work to develop and compete the best, most technologically advanced solutions to equip our military. Case in point, our Philadelphia-manufactured AW139 was designed from inception as a modern Huey replacement—offering the same footprint with 30 percent more volume and 50 percent more payload. Furthermore, the acquisition and operational costs of the AW139 are significantly less than a Black Hawk. I make these points as a way to ask: what is wrong with going through the process of having a competition?

I trust that Pentagon acquisition professionals will do the right thing when presented data. Years of failed defense acquisition programs do not justify a case to discard competition altogether in pursuit of the path-of-least-resistance. Rather, I would argue that we have an obligation to redouble our efforts to correct the causes that led to the ills of our current system.

While Mr. Bower’s commentary is probably well meaning, the fact that programs such as CSAR-X have failed to get off the ground does not mean that the Air Force should turn to a “one size fits all” approach to procurement. After all, competition is the engine of ingenuity and the “checks and balances” of excessive costs.

If, after a fair, transparent, merit-based competition, the Air Force or any other service forgoes competition, when more economical and efficient options are available in the marketplace, so be it. The impact of skipping the critical steps of competition will have serious long-term consequences for both the warfighter, in terms of having the best technology for the mission, and the taxpayer, when it comes to holding the line on costs. I cannot accept the notion that we would just throw up our hands and give up; rather, I prefer the American way: let’s compete and let the best solution win.

R. Scott Rettig

Chief Executive Officer

AgustaWestland North America


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