The U.S. Air Force's new combat rescue helicopter was saved from the budget ax by a "competitive" bid from a lone bidder and support from lawmakers, the service's No. 2 civilian said.
Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning on Tuesday acknowledged the service's belated decision to fund the program to develop a replacement for the HH-60G Pave Hawk into next year. Maj. Gen. Jim Martin broke the news during a budget briefing last week -- hours after the Pentagon released documents stating the effort would be delayed two years due to spending cuts.
Congress only recently approved $334 million for the program in the current fiscal year, Fanning said. The funding, combined with a lower-than-expected bid from United Technologies Corp.'s Sikorsky Aircraft -- the sole company to seek the contract -- convinced the new Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, to proceed with development, he said.
"This was a tough call," Fanning said during a breakfast with reporters in Washington, D.C. "What tipped, I think, things in favor of moving forward with the Combat Rescue Helicopter this year was certainly a very strong bid from Sikorsky -- bidding in what they thought was a more competitive environment than what it was. And so in the interest of spending taxpayers' dollars as wisely as possible, that weighed heavily on us."
Potential competitors such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and Airbus Group reportedly opted out of the possible $7 billion program after determining it wouldn't be profitable enough.
"And then Congress weighed in," Fanning added. "Those members of Congress who were in support of re-capitalizing and re-capitalizing now were trying to do everything they could to make it easier for the Air Force to make that decision."
Ultimately, the secretary determined "now was the time to do it, with the extra money that Congress had found us and with this very competitive bid that came in well under our cap." Fanning said.
The HH-60G is the Air Force’s version of the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk, modified for search-and-rescue missions in any kind of weather condition. There are roughly 100 of the aircraft, which entered service in the early 1980s, according to an Air Force fact sheet.
The undersecretary didn't discuss why the Air Force can't use existing platforms such as a V-22 Osprey or a new or upgraded Pave Hawk for such missions.
While he acknowledged the Air Force's decision came "very late," Fanning also pushed back against suggestions it was made at the last-minute -- when an aide reportedly slipped a note to Maj. Gen. Martin during the briefing.
At the time, Martin announced, "Breaking news, we have made a decision to fund the CRH," according to a transcript of the event. When asked when the decision was made, he replied, "It was made today."
Fanning said Martin knew of the decision before the briefing. "I think that note was, 'You're now allowed to talk about it,' as opposed to 'We've made the decision,'" the undersecretary said.
Fanning said the department's top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, still has to authorize the program to enter the technology development phase known as Milestone B. "It won't be long before we're able to announce what that schedule is," he said. "But it's not finalized right now."