I posted an article at THE DAILY STANDARD yesterday on the CSAR-X competition, and I think it's worth doing a little follow-up here. First off, Aviation Week has posted a video on the competition that goes a long way towards explaining why the Chinook was selected, but they don't make any excuses for the bungled competition: "the U.S. Air Force is searching for an answer to its search and rescue embarrassment." At the Aviation Week blog Ares, Bill Sweetman weighs in, saying he was among those who expected a win for Lockheed's US101, adding that the Chinook has some real limitations as a CSAR platform. He also notes that despite the name--US101--the Lockheed chopper is mainly a product of Italian/British firm AugustaWestland. That the aircraft had already been selected as the next presidential helicopter, says Sweetman, meant "it would have been gutsy to choose the AgustaWestland design yet again over domestic designs." True enough, and we're on record here in favor of Boeing's entry in the tanker deal if for no other reason than the French connection to rival Northrop Grumman's bid (see When Frogs Fly). But still, buying Italian hardware would seem a far less risky proposition than buying from the French--a big no-no for the Republicans who were still eating freedom fries in the House cafeteria not too long ago. Blackfive posted a link to the story, and a few of his commenters, who are quite knowledgeable on such issues, also saw the Chinook as a logical, low-risk choice--it is already in service, the Air Force needs this contract fulfilled sooner rather than later, it's a reliable aircraft, etc. All true. There is a case to be made for the Chinook. Stephen Trimble, who edits The DEW Line, told me he supports the decision:
The HH-47 is only the most expensive solution on paper. Both the US101 and H-92 would require a new engine to meet the air force's requirements. That engine is still in development. Integrating a new engine into a helicopter is highly risky. I think the air force was looking for a low-risk solution. And I think the CH-47 is the least risky of the three.
And John at Op-For points to this article from Flight International, which also explains the Chinook as the low-risk choice. But John's still somewhat skeptical of the decision--in his own colorful words: "Yeah, and why on earth would we want a fat-assed bird like the Chinook for a light, fast, and stealthy tactical mission like see-sar? Are they planning on bringing back the downed aircraft too?" I think the important thing to remember here is that while the Chinook might be an acceptable CSAR platform, the Air Force's RFP should have made its selection a major long-shot, if not an impossibility. And that's the problem: the game appears to have been rigged, at the last minute, in favor of the Boeing proposal. Was that because, at the last minute, some folks at the Air Force got nervous about timelines and risk and thought the Chinook was really the best choice, regardless of the selection criteria in the RFP? I think that is entirely possible. But the only way to keep things honest is to have a modicum of transparency. When a major contract is up for bid, everyone needs to know the rules of the game, and the Air Force ought to abide by those rules. If the Air Force decides to change the rules half-way through the game, that's fine too, as long as the change is done in a transparent manner. But whatever happened here was not transparent. Update: A friend of THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD, who asks that his name be withheld for obvious reasons, writes in with an interesting take on the controversy, and which conforms well with what I've heard from other sources. I find this explanation to be highly credible.
I conducted some of the trade studies for CSAR-X, and my analysis showed it coming in a poor third behind the Sikorsky S-92 and the EH-101. The only thing it had going for it was range and payload, both of which were excessive for the mission. From a survivability perspective, it is not a good choice, being large, slow and unmaneuverable. Its landing footprint is so large that many extraction points available to the other two candidates would be foreclosed to the Chinook, meaning that aircrew would have to be extracted by cable hoist--a slower and more dangerous proposition, since while the aircrew are being winched up, the helo must hover for an extended time.
Boeing kept its costs down by using remanufactured CH-47D airframes (as if the Army has enough!) to MH-47F standards, which would include a new glass cockpit, new digital engine controls, enlarged sponsons with increased fuel capacity, uprated transmissions, a new mission avionics suite (common to all three candidates, so the cost there was a wash), and additional armor around the crew stations and flight control system.
How it won, I don't know. My suspicion is two factors were at work. First, the Air Force wanted to ensure that this was an "interim" solution that would not, in the long term, endanger procurement of the MH-22 Osprey as the "objective" system--though it is not clear to me that the Osprey is really ideal for CSAR except from the perspective of speed and transit time. Second, the MH-47F would add a significant special operations capability to the USAF inventory, which would make it more of a player in the SOCOM community, and pose a challenge to the Night Stalkers of the 160th SOAR. After all, the 160th has only a small number of MH -47Es, so the addition of sixty or so birds with equivalent or superior night flying capabilities, each with the capacity to carry 40+ fully equipped troops or a light vehicle, would give the Air Force a lot of credibility.
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