Leonardo won’t pursue Lakota helicopter challenge in court

Leonardo Helicopters is backing down from its challenge to U.S. Army plans to purchase more Airbus UH-72A Lakota helicopters, ending a three-year legal battle that in recent weeks had become increasingly heated.

The U.S. Army competitively selected the UH-72A Lakota as its Light Utility Helicopter in 2006. The aircraft became the Army's primary training helicopter under the terms of the 2013 Aviation Restructure Initiative. James Darcy Photo
The U.S. Army competitively selected the UH-72A Lakota as its Light Utility Helicopter in 2006. The aircraft became the Army’s primary training helicopter under the terms of the 2013 Aviation Restructure Initiative. James Darcy Photo
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In a statement provided to Vertical on Feb. 12, the company declared, “In light of the appellate court ruling, Leonardo Helicopters has decided to discontinue any further legal action regarding the sole-source award of trainer helicopters to the U.S. Army.”

That ruling was a Jan. 23 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which overturned a lower court’s injunction against the Army’s purchase of 16 Lakotas from Airbus Helicopters.

The Court of Federal Claims had sided with Leonardo in 2016, finding that the Army’s decision to declare the UH-72A Lakota as its institutional training helicopter — in keeping with its 2013 Aviation Restructure Initiative — was essentially a procurement decision that violated federal laws on competition in contracting.

The trial court had barred the Army from proceeding with its sole-source acquisition of 16 Lakota helicopters using fiscal year 2016 (FY16) funding, giving the Army six months to either proceed with a competitive procurement, or come up with a more satisfactory Justification & Approval (J&A) for the purchase.

Instead, the Army appealed. And the Federal Circuit agreed with the Army, finding that its decision to use Lakotas as primary training helicopters was a policy decision that was not subject to the lower court’s review. The appellate court also found that the Army had provided a “coherent and reasonable” J&A for the 16-helicopter purchase.

Nevertheless, Leonardo initially indicated that it would continue to challenge the Army’s procurement of Lakotas. In an unusually outspoken conference call on Jan. 30, Airbus Helicopters, Inc. president Chris Emerson informed reporters that Leonardo had chosen to pursue yet another lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims, contesting the Army’s latest plans to acquire up to 35 Lakotas with FY17 funding.

According to court filings, Leonardo also indicated in a Jan. 26 telephonic status conference that it intended to seek a rehearing of its original case in the Federal Circuit.

In his own conference call, Emerson sought to cast Leonardo as a reckless actor that threatened to upset the entire U.S. defense procurement process by pursuing its protests through the slow-moving legal system, rather than through the established system for protesting defense contract awards with the Government Accountability Office.

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With respect to Leonardo’s latest lawsuit, Emerson contended, “The only reason we can see for this lawsuit is to do what they nearly succeeded in doing with the last lawsuit: tie up Army acquisition in the court system for years, preventing the next Lakota contract long enough to strangle our U.S. production line and put our American workers out of a job.”

That production line in Columbus, Mississippi, is currently scheduled to deliver its last Lakota under existing contracts on Feb. 28. On Jan. 29, the Army stated in a court filing that it intended to “proceed expeditiously” to award a contract for the 16 Lakotas that were the subject of the original lawsuit.

However, after Leonardo pointed out that it had 45 days from the date of the Federal Circuit ruling to petition for rehearing, the Army stated that it would refrain from awarding a contract until after the Federal Circuit issues its mandate.

A Leonardo spokesperson confirmed to Vertical on Feb. 12 that the company would not be petitioning for a rehearing.

“We nonetheless continue to believe that strong competition for government programs is in the best interests of our warfighters, American taxpayers, and the U.S. defense industrial base,” Leonardo’s statement continued. “Of course, we are disappointed that there was no competition in this case.”

An Airbus spokesperson told Vertical, “Airbus is gratified that Leonardo will drop its legal actions preventing the U.S. Army from acquiring Lakota helicopters. It is time to allow the Army to move forward with its Aviation Restructuring Initiative, meet its readiness needs, and accelerate training of new pilots.”

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