An artist's rendering of the new Sikorsky combat rescue helicopter. (Sikorsky)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force awarded Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin a $1.3 billion contract Thursday for the Combat Rescue Helicopter program.
The deal for 112 Sikorsky Black Hawks, outfitted with Lockheed mission equipment, brings to a close a more than decade-long Air Force quest to purchase a replacement for its HH-60G combat search-and-rescue helicopters. The Sikorsky-Lockheed team was the only bidder in the competition.
The contract could be worth as much as $7.9 billion, the Air Force said in a statement. The contract awarded Thursday includes funding for the first four aircraft.
Speaking at a Defense Writers Group breakfast last week, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called the Sikorsky-Lockheed proposal “technically in good shape and was quite a bit below the cost analysis that the Pentagon felt was appropriate. So it appeared to be a very good deal for the taxpayer from a cost perspective.”
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, in a statement said: “We are committed to ensuring our airmen are equipped to rescue America’s warriors whenever and wherever necessary. This contract secures that mission for many years to come.”
The aircraft will be built by Sikorsky in Connecticut and Lockheed will install the mission systems in upstate New York.
“We are honored that the Air Force has selected Sikorsky to develop and build the new Combat Rescue Helicopter,” Sikorsky President Mick Maurer said in a statement. “Since 1943, Sikorsky has proudly provided the combat rescue helicopter platform to enable the Air Force to perform one of its most important and sacred missions — bringing our downed service members home safely. I’m tremendously pleased that we will continue to do so for years to come.”
“The Combat Rescue Helicopter program will equip service men and women with modernized mission systems and special equipment for the combat rescue mission, which is essential to sustaining the United States Air Force’s core service function of personnel recovery,” Dale Bennett, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin's Mission Systems and Training, said in a statement. “We are proud to expand our long-standing relationship with the US Air Force and Sikorsky, providing a new aircraft system capable of performing the vital personnel recovery missions, including combat rescue and casualty evacuation.”
The contract award is a huge political win for Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the entire Connecticut congressional delegation, who pressured the Pentagon to allocate funding for the program despite spending cuts across the Pentagon budget.
“These new combat rescue helicopters will play a major role in ensuring that our troops can be evacuated safely from whatever dangerous situation they face, and I am proud that this incredible new aircraft will be produced right here in the Southern Tier,” Schumer said in a statement. “This contract is another major win for Tioga County and the entire Southern Tier economy, and I will keep fighting to bring more federal contracts to New York so that we can continue to create good-paying, high-skilled jobs.”
While the award is considered a win for the combat search-and-rescue community, it has been criticized by defense companies who have argued the requirements were written for a Black Hawk, hence preventing them from competing.
When James became the Air Force Secretary in December, the service’s 2015 budget proposal was all but finalized, except for one big-ticket program: the Combat Rescue Helicopter.
The program had been star-crossed. Over a more than 15-year period, the Air Force unsuccessfully tried to acquire new machines to replace battle-worn HH-60G Pave Hawks. A 2006 deal to buy Boeing Chinooks fell apart due to mistakes made when the Air Force evaluated bids.
Since then, the program was delayed, mainly due to internal Pentagon squabbling. Air Force officials debated the mission requirements and whether the effort should be combined with a separate Air Force helicopter program. Air Force Special Operations Command tried to take over the mission from Air Combat Command, while other services questioned the need for the entire combat search-and-rescue mission.
When all of those issues were finally put to bed, the one-time No. 2 Air Force acquisition priority completely fell off the list. By 2013, the Air Force budget had tightened and sequestration hit the Pentagon.
“[T]he Combat Rescue Helicopter was literally teetering on the brink; would this be included going forward or would it not,” James said at a June 18 Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington.
In January, Congress added hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2014 defense appropriations budget for the program.
“We had the need, we had a proposal on the table, which was a good buy for the taxpayer, we had seed money from the Congress … these were the various factors,” James said. “Of course, there was more money that would have to be found and we would have to make tradeoffs in the out years.”
Then just days before the Pentagon released it 2015 budget proposal, James took a trip to Moody Air Force Base in southern Georgia, where she visited an Air Force rescue wing.
“I saw the helicopters, I talked to the team on the ground and in the air,” she said. “When I came back from that trip, that is when it all solidified in my mind.”
The Air Force combat search-and-rescue aircraft and airmen have been continuously deployed since the US went to war in Afghanistan in 2001. Since there are so few aircraft — fewer than 100 that are flyable — the units have been on constant rotations.
Instead of performing their core mission of rescuing downed pilots behind enemy lines, they performed medical evacuation, rescuing wounded US, Afghan and coalition soldiers on the battlefield. But unlike the Army medevac helos, the Air Force Pave Hawks are armed with machine guns, allowing the crews to perform rescue missions in hostile situations.
The crews of pilots and pararescuemen, known as PJs, live by the motto “That Others May Live.”
“It’s a very sacred mission and the airmen were extremely impressive,” James said.
In the end, the program was funded in the Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal. On March 4, just before Maj. Gen. Jim Martin, the US Air Force budget director, walked into the Pentagon briefing room on March 4, an aide slipped him a note.
The paper said that if a reporter asked about the Combat Rescue Helicopter program, say that James just made the decision to keep the program alive.