Blackhawks beaten out by Italian-designed copter for Air Force UH-1 replacement

Just in time to avoid the end of the fiscal year, the US Air Force has finally selected a successor to the aged UH-1 Hueys used by the Air Force’s nuclear missile security force: the MH-139, a militarized version of the AgustaWestland AW139 from the Italian aerospace and defense company Leonardo. The MH-139 was a joint bid by Leonardo and Boeing and will be built in the United States at Leonardo’s facilities in Philadelphia.

The award this morning is for $375 million, covering delivery of the first four helicopters. But the overall program could be worth up to $2.4 billion, delivering up to 84 helicopters, as well as training systems and support equipment.

The MH-139 beat out two separate bids to provide helicopters based on the Lockheed Martin Sikorsky H-60 Blackhawk—one from Lockheed for a new variant based on the helicopter being built for the Air Force’s special operations squadrons, and another from Sierra Nevada Corporation that would have refurbished retired US Army UH-60s with new avionics. The competition had been held up by a pre-award protest by Lockheed Martin, and there had been concern that the Air Force would not be able to make a selection in time to avoid having to go back to Congress for reauthorization of the purchase.

The Blackhawk was the original pick to win the program, which the Air Force had intended to simply sole-source to Sikorsky. But then the service’s procurement team decided to put the program up for bid, and the competition paid off for the Air Force. The overall price tag of the helicopter program came down considerably from what the Air Force originally expected to pay—an estimated $4.1 billion. “Strong competition drove down costs for the program, resulting in $1.7 billion in savings to the taxpayer,” said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson in a statement on the award.

In addition to providing overwatch for movement of nuclear missiles between silos and Air Force bases for maintenance and for security team responses to threats, the MH-139 will also be used for pilot training and airlift support as well as testing and evaluation projects. “This replacement will provide the necessary speed, range, endurance and carrying capacity needed to meet the requirements of five Air Force major commands,” an Air Force spokesperson said.

The UH-1’s age wasn’t the only reason the Air Force needed a replacement. Because of the distances covered when moving missiles from their deployed locations back to bases for maintenance, the UH-1 required refueling during missions. That and other shortcomings of the venerable aircraft became painfully obvious during a 2015 nuclear exercise, “Mighty Guardian”, as CQ Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly reported in 2016.

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