The new Air Force Combat Rescue Helicopter will be a heavily modified Black Hawk design. (Sikorsky)
WASHINGTON — Supporters of the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program should thank Congress for its late entry into the five-year budget plan, according to the service’s undersecretary.
“Congress weighed in,” Eric Fanning said at a Tuesday breakfast event. “Congress weighs in a number of times on things they want us to do, and things they don’t want us to do, but in this case they actually found money for us this year to start that program, which shows the extent of their commitment and helped make it possible to tip in favor of moving forward with the combat rescue helicopter this year.”
Congress certainly did weigh in, with political support for the program — over 70 members of Congress, including influential Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, put pressure on the Pentagon to award a contract — and fiscal support.
As part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress gave the program $334 million. The service will use that funding to kick-start the program and award a contract to the team of Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin before the end of June.
The other factor in getting the program up and running, Fanning said, was Sikorsky’s pricing. The company bid “in what they thought was a more competitive environment than it was,” Fanning said. “So in the interest of spending taxpayers dollars as wisely as possible, that weighed heavily on us.”
“So [Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James] determined that we knew we were going to recapitalize this at some point, so 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 under our cap, well under our cap,” he explained.
While optimistic, Fanning warned things could still change.
“They have indicated publicly that they will work with us, but there are no guarantees for ’15,” he said. “ is when it starts to get really expensive and ramp up for us, but we will have to find additional offsets in ‘15 as well. We’ll work through that.”
The service has said it needs to find about $400 million in offsets to fund the program going forward. Fanning said the service has not yet decided what it will cut to fund the program, but said that should be announced within a few months. It is unlikely to include the KC-10, which is named in the budget as a program that could be cut if sequestration is not rolled back for FY 2016.
That question of whether sequestration levels will be enforced in 2016 also impacts plans to ramp up the program, Fanning said. The service will slow that ramp so that it has less of a budgetary impact on 2016, in order to avoid a budget squeeze on other programs that are in 2015 and 2016.
Over the length of the future years defense plan, the service intends to spend just over $1 billion on the program. It ramps up slowly, however, with only $11 million schedule in FY 2016, followed by $122 million in 2017, $393 million in 2018 and $560 million in 2019.
That ramp rate could be “constraining,” conceded Samir Mehta, Sikorsky’s president of Defense Systems and Services. However, he is confident there is enough funding to get the program off the ground and begin the early integration work needed on the platform, although that’s not to say the company wouldn’t like to see funding increase earlier.
“We’re optimistic and hopeful that the program can be accelerated from a funding standpoint,” Mehta said.
The CRH program covers 112 new helicopters to replace the service’s aging Pave Hawk combat search-and-rescue platforms, and could be worth as much as $7 billion. The Sikorsky/Lockheed team was the only competitor to actually bid on the program. Although three other companies explored bids, they eventually dropped out due to issues with the service’s requirements.
The decision to award the contract came very late in the budget process, to the point that the Pentagon’s initial budget rollout included a slide saying the program would be delayed.
It came as a surprise to Sikorsky officials as well, according to Mehta. He said the company was unclear of the program’s fate until late on March 4, when the budget was rolled out.
“We’re obviously very much delighted and excited by the customer’s decision,” Mehta said at a company-sponsored press event. He highlighted the fact that the original requirement to replace the Pave Hawk was drawn up in 1999 to show how long the attempted replacement has been ongoing.
The winning bid is a “heavily modified” Black Hawk design, with enhanced avionics and mission systems. In addition to avionic upgrades, the CRH design is based on the HH-60M model, which means it has structural upgrades to the Pave Hawk such as composite blades.
“It has some of the inherent advantages of being a base model M, but also with the missionization [to] provide an additional awareness on the battlefield,” Mehta said.
Basing the design on the Black Hawk will also help drive costs down, Mehta noted, which in turn helped provide that competitive bid highlighted by Fanning. In fact, the service made it clear from the start of the program that cost was a priority in choosing a winning bid.
“I give the Air Force a lot of credit. I think they learned from a couple of experiences on this program,” Mehta said.
“They went through a very deliberate process, it seemed, on this particular solicitation effort to quantify the value of different capabilities.”