Sikorsky will not take any more legal action against the Army over its decision to select another company to build the eventual replacement for the Black Hawk helicopter as its long-range assault aircraft, ending its months-long challenge over a program worth up to $7.1 billion that would have been a major boost for Connecticut’s defense sector.
The Stratford-based company had the option to continue the fight for the future long-range assault aircraft, which went to Textron Inc.’s Bell in Texas. But Sikorsky decided against filing a lawsuit in federal court after losing its formal protest earlier this month. It will instead focus on its Raider X prototype that is competing for the Army’s future attack reconnaissance aircraft contract.
“We are disappointed with the Government Accountability Office decision and remain convinced that our DEFIANT X offering represented both the best value for the taxpayer and the transformational technology that our warfighters need to execute their complex missions. We value our long-standing partnership with the U.S. Army, and serving their missions remains our top priority,” a Lockheed Martin spokesperson said in a Tuesday statement.
“We are focused on driving innovation and delivering the transformational RAIDER X for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, modernized Black Hawks and future technology critical to mission readiness for the United States and Allied nations,” the statement continued.
But members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation still sought more answers at a Wednesday briefing and kept up the pressure on the Army. They are also raising concerns about the likely funding needs for Bell’s tilt rotor V-280 Valor, which was almost double the estimated costs of Sikorsky’s prototype Defiant-X.
“Their decision in no way prevents us from going forward, asking tough questions [and] even potentially investigating why this seemingly misguided decision was made,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said on Wednesday. “I respect [Sikorsky’s] business decision. But we have a different framework for our decision as a matter of public policy.”
The Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency tasked with reviewing Sikorsky’s challenge, concluded in a recent decision that the Army “reasonably evaluated Sikorsky’s proposal as technically unacceptable” for the contract. Sikorsky filed an initial protest on Dec. 28 and a supplemental one in February.
The GAO’s 38-page report detailed the evaluations of the prototypes and why it ultimately denied the protest. The biggest difference is the significant cost differential between the two. Bell’s model is estimated to cost around $8 billion, while Sikorsky’s is about $4.4 billion.
The Defiant-X, however, was rated “unacceptable” on the architecture subfactor when the Army looked at engineering design and development. But the company believes there was a misunderstanding about how much detail the Army needed about the model’s architecture.
“In denying the protest, GAO concluded that the Army reasonably evaluated Sikorsky’s proposal as technically unacceptable because Sikorsky failed to provide the level of architectural detail required by the RFP (request for proposal),” GAO said in a recent statement.
After months of denied requests and growing concerns over Sikorsky’s loss, Connecticut’s delegation was briefed by Army officials at an in-person meeting on Wednesday evening, now that the protest process is over.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier in the day, Army leadership told Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, that Black Hawk helicopters will still be in production for decades to come.
“It is reassuring to hear the [Army] Secretary, Gen. McConville, and leaders across the Department reaffirm that Black Hawks are still a vital part of the Army’s helicopter fleet and the Department’s mission for decades to come,” said Courtney, who is the second-highest ranking Democrat on that committee.
“Importantly, as the Secretary noted, the industrial base in Connecticut will continue to play a key role in helping the Army fulfill that mission to upgrade, modernize, and sustain this platform over the next several decades,” he added.
But following the Army’s private briefing with the delegation, Blumenthal said he is still “deeply dissatisfied” and wants greater scrutiny over the contract award process.
He pointed to using the upcoming process to craft an annual bill authorizing the budget for military spending – the National Defense Authorization Act – as a way to dig into the Army’s decisionmaking.
“I’m going to use my role on the Armed Services Committee to impose that kind of oversight and scrutiny,” Blumenthal said following the Army briefing. “There may be hearings or not, but most important is to get to the facts and produce the best outcome.”
When it comes to funding the defense budget and military programs, Congress ultimately decides on what those levels will look like for the upcoming fiscal year. Connecticut’s members have not made any decisions about how they would approach funding for the FLRAA contract, but many of them are well-positioned to have some influence over the process.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, serves as ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, which crafts bills to fund the federal government. Sikorsky’s headquarters is located in her district. On the Senate side, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He has not made any decisions and needs more information from the Army, but he said that he is “not interested in spending way more money on this program than we need to.”
“At the end of the day, Congress has the purse strings, and our responsibility is to use that authority as wisely as possible so as to avoid waste and fraud,” Blumenthal said. “We’re in a period of scarce resources for our military and spending them in effect recklessly on a second-rate version of a critical weapons platform makes no sense.”
Sikorsky, which has been producing Black Hawk helicopters since the 1970s, is one of the biggest defense contractors in Connecticut and employs thousands of people in the state. More than 200 businesses act as suppliers to Sikorsky by providing various services, materials and products to the company.
While the FLRAA is a big loss for the Lockheed Martin-owned company and the state, Sikorsky will still manufacture Black Hawks through at least 2027 for a different Army contract. And the Army will likely decide on the FARA contract in a few years.
“There are plenty of other ways to keep Sikorsky up and operating. Obviously, we’ve got a very good decision for Pratt, so when it comes to military contracts, you win some and you lose some,” Murphy said on Wednesday, referring to President Joe Biden’s proposal supporting the modernization of the F135 engines for fighter jets that are produced by Pratt & Whitney.
“We’ve won a big one. We’ve lost a big one,” Murphy added. “And we’ll find ways to keep business flowing to Sikorsky.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.