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January 9, 2008 —The Air Force expects that 2008 will be a significant year on the path towards its Required Force, the modern force structure deemed necessary to assure air dominance and global power projection in coming decades.

“We will achieve successful results in the critical modernization of our aging aircraft inventory by putting the top two Air Force acquisition priorities on contract—the new air refueling tanker and the new Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopter,” writes Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne of USAF’s goals this year in his newly published Letter to Airmen entitled Make 2008 the Year of Achievement.

But the path ahead may be fraught with danger. A delay to the start of the KC-X tanker program caused by a legal protest lodged by the losing offeror and any additional legal hiccups to the already sidetracked CSAR-X initiative could have far-reaching implications and costs, a senior Air Force official tells the Daily Report.

“If that becomes the normal way of doing business with the aviation industry, that does not bode well for the nation,” this senior official said. “Because if you face a protest on every contract, [for] every year you delay in buying something, the next year it is going to be more expensive. And you have to plow money back into the system that you are maintaining, which means you have less money to buy the system that you want to buy.”

Indeed, for long-term planning, the specter of industry protests, as caused by a constriction of the US defense industrial base, constitutes “a high risk in all of the Required Force,” the senior Air Force official said. “That is actually a risk inherent in our system today that wasn’t here 10 years ago.”

As a result, keeping the KC-X and CSAR-X programs on track this year and into 2009 is vital to the continuity of the Air Force’s planning for the Required Force. USAF plans to incorporate the Required Force funding profile in the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget request that will be submitted to Congress a little more than one year from now. It is already making the case publically for obtaining an extra $20 billion on average over the next 20 years to procure the mix of strike aircraft, information-gathering platforms, and support assets that will form the 86 fully equipped, modern combat wings or equivalents that this future force structure entails.

USAF now has in its possession the final bids from the industry competitors for both modernization projects. The proposals to build 179 KC-X tankers came in last week, while reworked proposals for 141 new CSAR-X helicopters were turned in on Monday. These multi-billion-dollar efforts will yield new platforms that replace Eisenhower-era KC-135 tankers and 1980s-vintage HH-60 helicopters, respectively, that are worn out and increasingly costly to maintain, according to Air Force officials.

Tentatively the Air Force would like to choose the winning tanker design—either Boeing’s KC-767 or Northrop Grumman’s KC-30—in February. USAF would like to have Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Sikorsky under contract in July to build the winning CSAR-X model and put to rest a standing legal impasse that goes back to November 2006 and has prevented progress. Boeing’s HH-47 won the original contest, but two successful rounds of protest by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky with the Government Accountability Office over USAF’s evaluation methods have kept their respective US101 and HH-92 helicopters in contention.

“The practical consequence of what is happening right now with the [CSAR-X] protests—and that is the right of the companies to protest and I won’t begrudge them the right to protest—is the CSAR-X has now been delayed 18 months to two years,” the senior Air Force official said.

This delay is causing the Air Force to have to pump funds into the HH-60s to keep them flying for longer than originally planned when USAF crowned Boeing’s HH-47 the next-generation platform of choice in November 2006. USAF anticipated having the first squadron of CSAR-X helicopters available in September 2012. That initial fielding date may now slip into mid 2014.

“We are going to have to do some mods and some preventative maintenance to the HH-60s,” the senior official said. “I don’t know the exact number of what that is. But it is not an insubstantial number. You and I could not write the check.”

The Quadrennial Defense Review established the Required Force. USAF formerly called the Required Force the Planning Force. With it, the Air Force will be capable of defeating near-peer competitors, such as potentially China, and of protecting the homeland and countering asymmetric adversaries in the war on terror, USAF officials say.