The Air Force is taking the next steps toward finding a replacement for the UH-1N "Huey" used by the service's nuclear forces.

On Sept. 9, the Air Force posted online a Request for Information for a replacement helicopter, a solicitation for companies to advise service officials of what's available on the market.

The submissions will give military leaders a good idea of what helicopters are available for purchase and their capabilities. Top brass have already said they're looking to buy an existing aircraft, possibly modified, and not go through the process of designing and building a new one. 

The Air Force also posted a draft of its Air Vehicle System Requirements Document for industry review and announced an industry day and one-on-one sessions with industry representatives Sept. 27-28 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Acquisition officials are looking to purchase 84 new helicopters, and expect to award the contract in early fiscal 2018. Deliver of the aircraft would start no later than one year after that, meaning it's likely to be 2020 or 2021 before the entire fleet of Huey's is replaced.

Air Force Global Strike Command uses UH-1Ns to guard nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming; and Minot AFB, North Dakota. The helos are also used for VIP and personnel transport.

Following a request from the head of U.S. Strategic Command, the Air Force had proposed an immediate reprogramming action, which would have given Sikorsky a sole-source contract for its UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. However, a group of lawmakers protested the idea.

"It is our collective view that a terrible precedent would be set if services were allowed to justify sole-source acquisitions by citing a sense of urgency due in part to a failure to properly plan and execute against known requirements," stated an April letter signed by 12 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, some of whom sit on the House Armed Services Committee.

They added that the committee "has been a champion for competition and it should continue to be."

In May the Air Force heeded the lawmakers, and announced that it would move forward with a "full and open" competition for a replacement helicopter. But that move angered other lawmakers who said the Hueys weren't up to the task and needed to be replaced immediately.

Sikorsky did not disclose whether they are still going to enter the Black Hawk into the competition, but did tell Air Force Times that they are "actively pursuing" the contract.

The company is "ready to support aircraft deliveries to the Air Force off a hot production line and fully meet the Air Force requirements for its missile site and utility support missions," it said in a statement.

The request for information – or RFI – is an early step in that process, and will help inform officials before they put out an official request for bids.

Among the questions on the RFI, officials are interested in determining if the replacement helicopters would use spare parts that are already in the Pentagon inventory, whether the helicopters have already completed live-fire testing for the Defense Department, and a readout on the materials and aerodynamics of the craft.

Companies have until Sept. 26 to submit information.