A Black Hawk helicopter
A Black Hawk helicopter
A Black Hawk helicopter

Washington — Connecticut lawmakers and their allies in Congress are waging a war against the Pentagon’s plan to dramatically cut the number of  Sikorsky-made Black Hawk helicopters it will buy next year. The lawmakers may very well win.

In its 2017 budget request, the Pentagon asked Congress for money to buy far fewer Black Hawks, $976.1 million for 36 of the helicopters, down from $1.77 billion for 107 Black Hawks the Defense Department is buying this year.

Sharp reductions in the services’ aviation budgets is behind the cutback in ‘copters. The Army’s aviation budget, for instance, was cut by about $2 billion in the Pentagon’s budget request.

“The immediate result is the procurement of fewer Black Hawks, Apaches and Chinooks,” said Army Lt. Gen. Michael E Williamson at a House Armed Services hearing this week.

With a slowdown in the number of helicopters purchased by non-defense customers, especially the oil industry, which is suffering from a historic price slump and cutbacks in offshore production, the Pentagon’s budget cuts are likely to have negative impact on helicopter makers like Sikorsky Aircraft of Stratford, which has been recently acquired by Lockheed Martin.

Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said the company “won’t speculate on business impact as the budget cycle is still in process.”

Congress may come to the helicopter industry’s rescue.

Members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation and other lawmakers are trying to restore some of the cuts.

To help fund a new search and rescue helicopter next year built by Sikorsky and known as the HH-60W, the Air Force had to abandon plans to replace with Black Hawks the 62 aging Vietnam War-era UH-1N  “Huey” helicopters that help guard the intercontinental ballistic missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and  F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

Last month, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, signed a letter to Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas; and the highest ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.; asking them to add authority to buy new Black Hawks for the air bases in this year’s defense bill.

“The failure to modernize these weapons has created a glaring gap in the security of our nation’s nuclear weapons,” said the letter, signed by a total of 15 Democrats and Republicans.

On Friday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy were among nine senators who signed a separate letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, asking her to shift gears on replacing the old helicopters at bases that house the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“We request the Air Force identify and put forth for congressional consideration the fastest and most cost effective method to replace the UH-1N helicopters as soon as possible,” the senators wrote. “The Air Force has known the shortfalls of the UH-1N helicopter for too long; the cost of delaying action is far too great a risk for our nation to take.”

In addition, DeLauro, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, hopes to persuade colleagues to add funding for 15 Black Hawks to the defense appropriations bill.

Important allies

The Connecticut lawmakers have important allies in their campaign to win funding for additional Sikorsky-made helicopters, including some well-placed Republicans.

At the hearing on the Pentagon’s helicopter budget this week, Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, blasted the Obama administration for cutting back on spending on the nation’s rotorcraft fleet.

“I can assure you this committee is going to reverse this dangerous decision…and is working to provide the necessary funding,” Turner said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also decried the Pentagon’s cutback in  certain weapon systems, including the F-35 and Sikorsky’s Black Hawks, this week, saying they would weaken the nation’s defense.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, said it’s likely there will be a boost in the number of helicopters Congress will buy – especially since a slowdown will cost the Pentagon money because it would hurt production efficiency.

“I think Congress is going to add some money to avoid layoffs and an uneconomic production rate,” Thompson said. “I think this will be a relatively easy add. The political reality is that the nation’s helicopter makers have strong political allies – outside Connecticut, he said.

“There is strong bipartisan support for rotorcraft expenditures, and helicopters are indispensable in counter-insurgency,” he said.

The political climate is so favorable to the industry, Thompson said, “it’s possible the Army cut the helicopter budget knowing that Congress would be able to add money to it.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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