There’s a lot of paperwork associated with major Pentagon weapons purchases. And the documentation can shed light on power plays and politics inside contested programs. Case in point: the $10-billion CSAR-X program to replace the Air Force’s old H-60 rescue choppers. The Boeing H-47 Chinook won that contest last year, but losers Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky have forced the Pentagon to re-open the competition. They claim that the requirements document called for a medium helicopter — and that the Chinook is in the “heavy” class and never even qualified. Now we can prove it — maybe.
All arms buys start with an “analysis of alternatives” that sketches out the baseline systems that might meet a given need and rejects the least appropriate. That analysis evolves into a “capability development document” that informs the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which issues the ”request for proposals” that go out to industry. The documents should reflect increasing clarity and consistency regarding what the military wants and which systems are best.
In the case of CSAR-X, however, the paperwork doesn’t agree – at least not entirely. The initial analysis, from 2002, establishes a need for a rescue chopper and considers both ”medium” and ”heavy” designs – the latter including the H-47. And it recommends the medium aircraft as best. A subsequent development document from 2004 goes further, firmly rejecting the Chinook, calling it “discarded.” But a 2005 revisison to the development document obfuscates the earlier definition of the H-47 as a heavy chopper and doesn’t mention at all the Chinook’s earlier rejection. This left the door open for Boeing to enter the competition when the request for proposals came out.
So who changed the development document? It’s hard to say right now … but consider this: Special Operations Command is an enthusiastic H-47 operator, and between 2003 and 2006, the Air Force component of SOC was in charge of search and rescue. Might the special operators have had an influence?
None of this is to say that the Chinook wouldn’t be an important addition to the Air Force’s arsenal. Personally, I believe it would be, since traditional combat search and rescue — requiring a small, nimble helicopter — is dead, and the future lies in more mundane missions requiring a big, long-range chopper. But the difference between the analysis and the development documents testifies to an unhealthy disconnect somewhere inside the Air Force bureaucracy … the same kind of disconnect that has reached a crisis point in the Marine Corps, where Marines in Iraq are begging for nonlethal weapons but the bureaucrats in Quantico refuse to provide them.