Air Force Sees Up to Four Competitors for New Helicopter Program

March 15 (Bloomberg) -- As many as four companies may compete to build a new U.S. Air Force helicopter that would protect missiles and evacuate government officials in an attack, the service’s top uniformed weapons buyer said.

An acquisition strategy will be released soon for the 93-helicopter program, Lieutenant General Mark Shackleford told a House Armed Services Committee panel today in Washington, without giving a timetable. The new aircraft would replace Bell Helicopter Textron UH-1N Hueys, Shackleford said.

The Air Force wants to replace the Hueys with a “Common Vertical Lift Support Platform” and asked in its fiscal 2012 budget for $5.4 million for development and $52.8 million to buy the first two new copters. Three or four companies are qualified to build the craft, said Shackleford, who didn’t identify them.

“We have a lot of options as we finalize the acquisition plan,” he said. “I expect it to be a competitive strategy.”

While the Air Force could invoke a 1932 law called the Economy Act to justify a single supplier, “we are leaning strongly towards competition,” Shackleford said in an interview after the hearing.

New choppers would have “needed carrying capability, speed, range and endurance currently not provided by the UH-1N fleet,” Schackleford said in a statement. Duties would include supporting the transport of intercontinental ballistic missiles and so-called continuation-of-government missions in Washington if the capital were under attack, according to the Air Force.

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