A nugget, hidden deep in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) document recently unsealed, reveals that Boeing's HH-47 Chinook helicopter, the winner of last November's Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X; pronounced "see-sar-ex") helicopter competition worth $15 billion, may not have truly met a key requirement--further calling into question Boeing's victory.
Unsealed today, a partially-redacted March GAO bid protest decision delves into two issues of note in the CSAR-X controversy. The two notable issues discussed are how Lockheed's performance on other contracts was factored into Air Force decisionmaking and on the deployability of Boeing's HH-47. The CSAR-X contract award is "widely considered the Air Force's first real test after the tanker deal went sour," according to The Hill.
According to the GAO, the Chinook came within a hair's width of not making its deployability requirement -- and even that is in question. In a flight demonstration in December 2005, it took the Boeing team 2 hours and 58 minutes to get the Chinook "flight ready," just two minutes shy of the 3 hour maximum threshold.
However, Boeing's build-up time did not include required maintenance and the installation of an item necessary for flight. Despite this Boeing "ultimately was found not deficient" in the key performance parameter of deployability. Was it really flight ready within 3 hours?
GAO explained that "the solicitation did not provide for a pass/fail flight demonstration that would be conclusive as to whether the proposed CSAR-X met the SRD requirements"--an explanation that seems to suck the meaning of the word "requirement." And that:
...the Air Force noted that Boeing proposed to incorporate into its helicopter a number of additional time‑saving measures not installed on the demonstrated helicopter, including a [DELETED]....The agency determined that these additional time-saving measures, when combined with increased training and familiarity with the aircraft, would enable Boeing’s CSAR-X aircraft to meet the SRD 3-hour build-up requirement. The agency’s determination, on its face, does not appear unreasonable, and the protesters have not shown otherwise.
Deployment was one of several key performance parameters (KPPs, a fancy term for requirements) in the CSAR-X competition--KPPs are layed out in what is called the System Requirements Document (SRD). The CSAR-X program envisions transporting whatever helicopter chosen as winner of the competition in a C-5 or C-17 cargo aircraft, then having it flight ready within 3 hours.
This 3 hour "flight ready" standard is itself a point of contention, since it was a change from the much higher "mission ready" requirement which existed in the CSAR-X competition draft Request For Proposal. The change occurred in a June 2005 Capabilities Development Document and manifested itself in the October 2005 final RFP. And, according to the Aerospace Daily and Defense Report:
A source familiar with CSAR operations and the Air Force special operations community, a major CSAR customer, said it appeared the KPP change occurred relatively late in the acquisition process and as an administrative alteration because special operators wanted to make sure the Chinook met the requirements. They also feel the H-47 is the best aircraft for the job, the source said.
In a 2002 Combat Rescue Analysis of Alternatives, the Chinook had explicitly been ruled out, Defense News reported earlier this week. But in 2003, the combat rescue mission was transferred from Air Combat Command (ACC) to Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Though combat rescue was retransferred back to ACC in late 2005, the final RFP had been released. SOCOM has a thing for Chinooks, Defense Tech's David Axe has noted.
Regarding the Chinook's competitors--the Sikorsky S-92 and the Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland EH-101--the GAO only leaves us with "In contrast, the LMSI and Sikorsky baseline aircraft demonstrated a build‑up time of [DELETED]." "[DELETED]" doesn't tell us much. The GAO should make the Sikorsky and Lockheed build-up to flight readiness times public. Why make one contractor's time available, but not the other two?
In the GAO sustainment of Lockheed and Sikorsky's bid protests in February, it ruled on very narrow grounds -- the calculation of operations and support costs, which is the largest part of a program's life cycle costs. But there seem to be other serious questions that need to be raised (pdf) regarding last November's CSAR-X contract award, a contract award worth billions.
-- Nick Schwellenbach