Boeing has been awarded the first portion of a $2.38 billion fixed-price contract to replace the U.S. Air Force’s Bell UH-1N fleet with its MH-139 helicopter, derived from Leonardo Helicopters’ commercial platform.

The $375 million initial award is for four helicopters and the integration of non-development items, the USAF announced in September.

The total program cost accounts for the acquisition and sustainment of up to 84 MH-139s and training devices.

The U.S. Air Force says it will turn to Chicago-based defense giant Boeing for the helicopters designed to protect the U.S. military’s ground-based ballistic missiles.

The military will use the helicopters to guard nuclear warheads as they are transported across the country. They would also probably be used to transport officials out of Washington in the event of a nuclear disaster. ╩

Bethesda-based rival Lockheed Martin had been competing for the contract.

The Air Force announced that the first of the four helicopters are to be delivered by 2021.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson hailed the contract as a win for taxpayers, noting that initial estimates had pegged its total cost at $4.1 billion.

“Strong competition drove down costs for the program, resulting in $1.7 billion in savings to the taxpayer,” Wilson said in a statement.

Like much of America’s nuclear infrastructure, however, the services’ Huey models are getting old. The UH-1 family of helicopters dates to the 1960s, when thousands of them were deployed in Vietnam. The UH-1N first entered the Air Force’s inventory in 1970.

Loren Thompson, a defense consultant with the Lexington Institute, which is funded by defense contractors including Boeing, said the Air Force’s language in the announcement suggests it had focused closely on driving down prices rather than tacking on fancy new capabilities.

“The Air Force has become infamous among military contractors for driving bidders to the lowest possible price on major procurements,” Thompson said.

Boeing may have low-balled competing proposals from Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada which had each pitched souped up versions of the UH-60 Black Hawk.

╩It was the second major aircraft procurement in the past month to fall in Boeing’s favor. Just weeks earlier, the company won an $805 million contract to build the Navy’s MQ-25 aerial-refueling drone, which Lockheed was also competing for.

If Boeing is successful in its bid to build the Air Force’s next fleet of pilot training aircraft an estimated $18 billion procurement that both companies are pursuing it could tip the scales among the world’s two biggest defense contractors for the first time in recent memory. The Air Force has said it will announce its decision on that program this fall.

It’s commendable that the Air Force is vigorously pursuing new aircraft development to replace flying machines that are growing way too old.

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