Alleging violation of rules intended to promote competition, AgustaWestland is asking the United States Court of Federal Claims to block the U.S. Army from procuring 155 Airbus Helicopters EC145 aircraft to supplement its existing fleet of UH-72A Lakotas.
In a complaint filed Sept. 19, AgustaWestland challenges the Army’s decision to acquire the helicopters on a sole-source basis, claiming that the Army has failed to provide sufficient justification for sidestepping a “full and open” competition. The complaint asks for a temporary restraining order on the procurement, and, ultimately, a permanent injunction that would force the Army to award the contract on a competitive basis.
The Army published a notice of its intentions on the FedBizOpps.gov website on Sept. 4, advising that it intended to procure an additional 155 EC145s from manufacturer Airbus Helicopters on “an other than full and open competitive basis.” Beyond the helicopters themselves, the notice stated, the contract would include training from the manufacturer for pilots and maintainers; engineering services; and options for installation of aircraft modifications via production cut-in and retrofit.
The proposed EC145 acquisition is part of the Army’s controversial plan to cut costs by reducing the number of helicopter models in its fleet. The plan calls for the Army National Guard to transfer Boeing AH-64 Apaches to the active-duty Army, where they will replace aging Bell OH-58 Kiowas. (The Guard will receive UH-60 Black Hawks in return.) The Army also intends to repurpose 100 or more UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopters to replace the Bell TH-67 aircraft it uses as primary training helicopters.
Airbus Helicopters has delivered 315 Lakota helicopters to Army, National Guard, and Navy units since the light utility helicopter contract was competitively awarded in 2006. When Army Maj. Gen. (now Lt. Gen.) Kevin W. Mangum addressed the use of Lakotas as primary trainers earlier this year
, he noted, “The good thing about the UH-72s is they’re bought and paid for.”
In its complaint, however, AgustaWestland challenges the economic rationale behind the helicopter swap. Proposing its AW119Kx (the latest version of the AW119 Koala) and AW109 as possible alternative trainers, AgustaWestland notes that the EC145 — the civilian base model for the Lakota — has significantly higher acquisition and operating costs than either. Compared to acquiring 155 new EC145s to supplement the 100 Lakotas it intends to repurpose, the government could save more than $330 million by purchasing 255 new AW119Kx helicopters, the complaint states. Moreover, according to AgustaWestland, the Army could save approximately $128 million per year in operating costs by using the AW119Kx as a training helicopter.
AgustaWestland also contends that the Lakota, which was not originally acquired for purposes of primary flight training, is poorly suited for the role, in addition to being more expensive. In a declaration included with the complaint, AgustaWestland North America CEO Robert LaBelle states, “Some of the basic flight characteristics of the UH-72A/EC145 raise doubt about the aircraft’s suitability as a primary flight trainer. Among other things, the UH-72A/EC145 helicopter has a restricted flight maneuver envelope and other features that are likely to impede its training utility.” The complaint does not elaborate on what those features might be, and an AgustaWestland spokesperson contacted by Vertical declined further comment.
In an email to Vertical, Airbus Group spokesperson James Darcy noted that the Lakota is currently being used for a wide range of missions, including training at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. “The Lakota was competitively selected as a cost-effective platform to perform a wide range of missions, including training,” he stated. “We support the Army’s plan to modernize its rotary-wing training program, and believe that no one knows better than the Army what is best for its aviators and overall force.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that AgustaWestland was contacted for this article, but declined comment.