IB 21 and Transitioning to 21st Century Business Rules: The Case of the USAF Huey Replacement Helicopter


2017-10-19 By Robbin Laird

The USAF has seen more than a decade in which a primary function has been to support ground operations.

The USAF has served as Fed Ex, a flying gas station, a strike and ISR server in the sky for various types of ground operations.

The end result is that skill sets have been honed for slo mo operations in uncontested airspace. These skill sets are not easily transferred to high tempo and high intensity conflict in contested operational space.

At the same time, technology has evolved where integrated air and maritime operations are not empowered to be able to serve a distributed C2 strike and sensor enterprise.

But again this has little in common with the training of the last decade of air power professionals.

The USAF has recognized this and their work at Nellis and at Air Combat Command is clearly evolving air combat power to work more effectively in the integrated battle space and to do with allies.

We have highlighted throughout various visits the important efforts of the USAF, the USN and USMC working through enhancing the skill sets for high tempo operations.

But what needs to happen is that this outstanding work needs to be leveraged into a broader transformation of the USAF itself.

Nothing less than a significant shift in USAF concepts of operations and enterprise performance is required to provide the nation and our allies with the kind of airpower for the Integrated Battlespace emerging in this decade of the 21st century.

We are referring to this as Integrated Battle (IB) 21.

The focus of the Air Force needs not simply to aim high but to aim for domination in high intensity conflict.

With the shift from slo mo to high tempo and high intensity warfare preparation, the USAF needs to get into the inventory war winning equipment as rapidly as possible and allow the warfighters to transition their skill sets accordingly.

This means as well avoiding one of the core propensities of the last Administration, which was to compete endlessly and go for the lowest initial cost.

Competition does not drive the cost of the most relevant equipment down; it simply puts the Air Force in the position along with industry of competing and delaying acquisition to the point where the capabilities of the force can be significantly reduced.

War winning capability is the acquisition goal; not jobs for acquisition officials to craft competition metrics to the point where the initial cost of a system really has little to do with the operational cost of systems, in terms of modernization and sustainment cycles.

And facing the return to the forefront of the nuclear threat in terms of second nuclear age powers like North Korea or first nuclear age powers like China and Russia underscore the need to modernize and strengthen the nuclear enterprise expeditiously.

This is not about simply building the largest stockpile of weapons; it is about having the right kind of weapons and the con ops to credibly deter an adversary from believing that the United States is incapable of expeditious use of those weapons in times of crisis.

And it is not just the weapons it is about the enterprise and its capability.

And clearly the Department of Defense needs an acquisition approach which allows for expeditious enhancements of the nuclear enterprise.

But the endless cycle of competition for competition’s sake and the putting aside serious consideration of the real cost of capabilities is a barrier to ensure the nation’s safety and security.

Earlier this year Michael Sirak, Mitchell Institute Visiting Fellow, provided a very insightful Mitchell Policy Paper on the crucial shift which a different set of business rules could provide to ensure that the USAF is on the right end of the outcome of conflict – winning.


For the United States to engage successfully around the globe, the Air Force, just like its sister services, must fundamentally rethink and retool how it acquires weapon systems so that Airmen are equipped to prevail. Business as usual with the mainstream acquisition system is no longer tenable.

The rapid pace of technological development is overrunning acquisition efforts that slog on for years and often decades. The status quo merely ensures obsolescence, depriving the service of essential agility required to meet rapidly evolving circumstances in the operational environment. The Air Force must strive to deliver weapon systems far more efficiently and effectively.

A key case in point is the USAF’s approach to the replacement of a helicopter, which is part of the nuclear enterprise ands, serves a critical role in the protection and defense of the operational force and Sirak highlighted this case as a core example of confusing competition with delivering timely and effective capability to the warfighter.

The UH-1N Replacement program, the Air Force’s effort to swap out its Vietnam War-era UH-1N Huey helicopters with new, more-capable airframes, offers a topical example of the trials of service acquisition today.

The current iteration of the procurement effort began in Fiscal 2016, and at first glance, it appears this program should have been straightforward and uncomplicated.

That’s because the Air Force seeks to field a mature, essentially off-the-shelf helicopter design to replace the venerable UH-1Ns that perform the vital missions today of protecting the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile complexes, transporting senior government officials in and around the National Capital Region, and ensuring the continuous operation of the federal government during emergencies.

However, responding to myriad procurement challenges, the acquisition has morphed into something unnecessarily more complicated. This has yielded a program that has now been in the works for more than a decade in one way or another, but has become dogged by numerous schedule delays.

Based on the current, notional planning, the Air Force will not receive the first new helicopters for testing until Fiscal 2020, have the first operational unit ready until around Fiscal 2022, and will not have the full replacement fleet in place until around Fiscal 2031.16 This means some Hueys likely will be flying for another decade or more, giving them a service life of nearly 60 years.

Airmen at all levels are exceedingly frustrated by the saga of events surrounding this program. “Of all the things in my portfolio, I can’t even describe how upset get about the helicopter replacement program,” Gen John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2017.

“It’s a helicopter for gosh sakes. We ought to be able to go out and buy a helicopter and put it in the hands of the people that need it. And we should be able to do that quickly,” he said, noting that he was the one who actually wrote the initial requirements for the replacement helicopter back in 2007.

“Now it’s 2017, 10 years later, and we’re still arguing about a helicopter,” he told the senators….

The bottom line is that the UH-1 recapitalization initiative represents an area where the procurement process is revealing significant room for improvement.

This is not a stealthy, cutting-edge bomber that will be tasked with flying around the globe at a moment’s notice into some of the most defended regions around the globe. Its mission, while vitally important, is constant and relatively unchanging, conducted within the continental United States.

There comes a point where the acquisition hurdles this initiative has had to surmount over the decade-long circuitous process present more risk to the nation than the notion of using common sense and judgment to rapidly meet established requirements.

The Air Force is now seeing a competition between a commercial off the shelf helicopter, which has literally no military heritage and is used by no one in the US military versus the Blackhawk which is main stream US Army helicopter and is in service with the Air Force (HH-60G and HH-60U) and the Navy (MH-60S and MH-60R).

Put bluntly, this means that the USAF is competing a very small number of helicopters for competition’s sake and perhaps choosing a sui generis helicopter for the force when a worldwide fleet of helicopters already deployed, sustained and being modernized exists.

This makes no sense and the capability and cost consequences are significant.

And the way the USAF has set up the competition it ensures that key capabilities are not simply being considered as part of the source selection.

For example, the life cycle cost evaluation is not considering the potential savings resulting from picking a helicopter already being developed by the USAF, namely, the HH-60W, which the Sikorsky offering of an HH-60U for the requirement and we are talking less than a hundred aircraft here.

And the obvious deployment advantages of leveraging a large US Army fleet is not being considered as well, presumably because this would suggest the core point, that why could not the USAF make a decision years ago based on common sense and move ahead?

The USAF is already flying the HH-60U so the service already currently has training, supply, logistics support, depot already fielded and ready to go. 

HH60U Sikorsky helicopter.

When one combines that with the existence of the Army Black Hawk Multi-year IX (MY IX) contract in place that has options available which could be leveraged, the USAF could be buying and fielding Black Hawks now.

And by combining with the Army on the contract the USAF could drive larger quantity discounts for both services and save money for both.

The sense of urgency is simply not there – it is as if the U.S. will only face slow mo competitors who will be nice enough not exploit our slo mo decision making style in Washington which if the warriors in the field would replicate the U.S. should be prepared to lose armed conflicts in the near to mid term.

It is difficult to fathom how the competition underway would help in any way dealing with the mobilization requirements of high intensity war.

In the event of a high intensity war breaking out, mobilization is a critical capability.

This means that in preparing for the prospect of high intensity war, a premium is placed on planning, establishing and meeting the requirements for the U.S. and allied industrial base to surge war winning platforms and weapons to the fight.

To be clear – the USAF would choose against a mobilization and commonality capability in favor of a unique small number of helicopters for a crucial nuclear support mission?


The Huey replacement competition provides an important case study in what not to do.

And it is through case studies one gets principals changed; it is not about an endless debate by the high priests of acquisition reform – it is about shifting into a higher gear to deliver more kit and more rapidly of the right sort to the warfighter.

It is not about slo mo competition to run in place or in this case to go backwards in terms of fleet management.

Editor’s Note: We are addressing the challenge of transitioning from slo mo to high tempo and high intensity operations on our Forum