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February 11, 2008— The Air Force is requesting money in its baseline budget proposal for Fiscal 2009 to start the Common Vertical Lift Support Platform program, the often talked about but long unfunded initiative to replace its Vietnam War-era UH-1N Huey helicopters that protect the nation’s ICBM fields, shuttle VIPs, and perform additional utility and civil rescue missions.

At $3.87 million, the sum is miniscule by Pentagon standards. And to be clear, the Air Force has no funding programmed yet for CVLSP from Fiscal 2010 through Fiscal 2013, when examining the five-year plan in its newly issued budget justification documents for Fiscal 2009. Nonetheless, the request represents the first time that USAF has been able to put dollars in its budget toward the much-needed helicopter, given its more pressing acquisition priorities such as fielding new tankers, combat rescue helicopters, satellites, and fighter aircraft.

“CVLSP is a new start effort in FY '09,” the Air Force writes. The goal, it states, is to have the new helicopter operational in Fiscal 2015 and have the new fleet be at full operational capability six years later. No number of helicopters is provided, but in the past, USAF’s notional figures for CVLSP have gone up to 66, although officials have said the most likely number would be less than that. The current UH-1N total active inventory is 62 but only 31 in the primary active inventory, as of Sept. 30, 2007. Air Force Space Command has the lion’s share of the inventory at 25 TAI and 18 PAI and had expressed worry over lack of a clear replacement plan. Other UH-1N Hueys are spread among other active duty commands.

If we’re reading the tea leaves correctly, USAF’s strategy appears to be to establish the CVLSP funding line in Fiscal 2009 and then include higher levels of funding for the project in its 2010 budget proposal as part of the overall greater infusion of modernization dollars that its seeks to equip the Required Force, its future inventory of 86 modern combat wings.

While most rotary-winged eyes have been fixed in the past several years on USAF’s efforts to field a new combat rescue helicopter—it’s second most pressing acquisition priority—under the CSAR-X combat search and rescue replacement aircraft initiative, CVLSP has stood in the shadows, essentially waiting for its time.

The UH-1N first entered the inventory in 1970. Air Force officials have said the old workhorses are simply wearing out and have performance limitations that cannot meet the expanding requirements for securing the ICBM fields and protecting the missile’s nuclear warheads during transit.

“We want something faster, [and that] can carry more weight, can carry more troops, and we’d like it to be more lethal, maybe armed if necessary,” Maj. Gen. Thomas Deppe, AFSPC vice commander, told a Capitol Hill audience in April 2007. At the time, Deppe commanded 20th Air Force, which overseas the nation’s three ICBM bases and operates three squadrons of Hueys.

“I am not looking for the 100 percent solution,” Deppe said of CVLSP. “I just want something that is better than what we have got because we are rapidly running out of sustainment capability.”

The $3.9 million in 2009 would allow the Air Force to support the CVLSP system program office and develop the helicopter’s system requirements documents, information support plan, acquisition strategy report, request for proposal, and test and evaluation master plan. An RFP would be issued in Fiscal 2010 and, after an ensuing competition, the winning helicopter design would be chosen in that same year, according to the notional planning in the budget documents. Test helicopters would be delivered in Fiscal 2011, and low-rate initial production would begin in Fiscal 2013, the documents state. Production deliveries would start in Fiscal 2014 and the new fleet would reach initial operational capability in 2015.

Originally the Air Force intended to replace the Hueys as a component of the CSAR recapitalization, but split the two efforts in 2005. In theory, it would make sense to have a common platform for both duties since there could be economies of scale on the production line and significant savings in operating and maintaining them as well as training the aircrews. But the Air Force’s leadership has stated that it wants to obtain the best CSAR platform without any requirements creep, and only then look at filling the CVLSP requirements.

Thus, it remains to be seen if the platform that emerges later this year as the winner in the CSAR-X contest will end up being chosen for CVLSP. Of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Sikorsky, the three CSAR-X competitors, Sikorsky was most vocal during the competition in saying its HH-92 would also be an ideal CVLSP platform since the interior cabin of its design is readily reconfigurable for various missions.