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Air Force Weakens Requirements Of Key Search And Rescue Project

Program officials improperly weakened one of the most important requirements on a major Air Force search and rescue helicopter contract in order to allow Boeing to compete, according to a new report by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). In doing so, they subverted the safety of service members to the parochial interests of the Pentagon and Boeing.

One of the most important requirements for the new helicopters concerns their speed in being deployed to and ready to go in the theater where search and rescue may be needed, suddenly and unpredictably after conflict erupts. Yet, at the eleventh hour in a key moment in the acquisition process, the CSAR-X program office at Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) watered down the "Key Performance Parameter" Deployability requirement, sneaking it in quietly in order to avoid attention from senior Air Force and Defense Department officials responsible for validating weapon system requirements. The change made vague the required maximum allowable of time in which a helicopter must be ready to fly missions after being deployed via cargo aircraft from a clear three hour standard that had previously existed.

“The Pentagon’s requirements process was set up to procure weapons that meet the needs of our men and women in uniform. To have the most important kind of requirement changed under the radar is deeply disturbing because it undermines the integrity of the acquisition system and, more importantly, puts lives at risk,” said Danielle Brian , executive director, Project On Government Oversight. A detailed report, Rescue At Risk: Crucial Helicopter Requirement Weakened, was released today by POGO.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the change merit further attention from the Congress and the Department of Defense Inspector General. While the Project On Government Oversight has no reason to believe there was any illegality or corruption in the process, the system was so subverted, and consequently the needs of the warfighter so undermined, that the IG should investigate the deployability requirement change.

The $10-$15 billion contract for a new combat search and rescue helicopter (known as CSAR-X), which is the Air Force's second highest procurement priority, has been the focus of two Government Accountability Office bid protests. The Air Force is preparing to re-bid parts of the contract for a second time following GAO decisions which sustained concerns raised by Boeing's competitors. The Air Force’s decision in November 2006 to award the contract to Boeing for its HH-47 Chinook proposal surprised many. Air Force chief of staff General Michael Moseley told reporters, “I am not sure [the HH-47] is the one that I would have picked, but I am not the guy that picks.”

After the initial award in November 2006, Boeing rivals Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky subsequently filed and won two rounds of protests with (GAO), which, along with congressional scrutiny, have left the program in limbo. The GAO’s decisions were based on cost evaluation by the Air Force; POGO’s findings raise further questions about the integrity of the program and the acquisition process.