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A move to rush helicopter purchase faces objections

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The Air Force has taken a beating over its contract process in recent years. But if officials thought a new approach would avoid controversy, they have been disappointed.

As the Air Force tries to speed its purchases, it is considering using an obscure 1932 law to buy at least $1 billion worth of helicopters without competitive bids, government officials say.

Watchdog groups and some industry officials are bristling at the idea, saying it would hand the business to Sikorsky, a unit of United Technologies of Hartford, Conn., without giving other companies a chance to offer what could be substantially lower prices.

The law, the Economy Act of 1932, was part of Herbert Hoover’s efforts to cut purchasing costs in the Depression by letting federal agencies buy equipment from one another without seeking bids from industry. Military analysts say it now eases transfers of fuel and computers, but it has hardly ever been used to buy weapons or aircraft.

Under the proposal, which is being debated in the Pentagon, the Air Force would add its order for as many as 93 Black Hawk helicopters to an Army contract with Sikorsky. The Army would order the extra craft, then sell them to the Air Force.

Air Force officials have said that the new helicopters would replace old Hueys that help secure Western missile silos and can ferry federal officials to safety in a crisis. Most of the Hueys were built during the Vietnam War, and avoiding a bid process could save a year or more in getting the replacements into the field.

But, as top Pentagon officials emphasize the need for more competition to reduce weapon costs, several analysts estimate that the Air Force could save 20 to 40 percent by inviting other manufacturers to bid.

“There are certainly options out there, and the Air Force rationale just seems kind of shaky,” said Nick Schwellenbach, the director of investigations at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group in Washington. “The idea should be to save money by having the companies slug it out.”

Air Force officials declined to be interviewed and released a statement saying, “All options are under review, and no decisions have been made.”

Richard L. Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace and military consultancy in Fairfax, Va., said Air Force officials had had “the living tar beaten out of them” in bid competitions in recent years, with government auditors overturning multibillion-dollar awards for aerial refueling tankers and for other helicopters.

Given those delays in replacing other equipment, “you can see the appeal of some kind of fast-track, quick remedy,” he said. Air Force officials might think, “Just give us the Black Hawks.” After all, Aboulafia said, “everyone else has them.”

But while the Black Hawks are among the most popular military helicopters ever made, they are much larger and more expensive than other helicopters that would also be faster and more efficient than the old Hueys, Aboulafia said.

He said Black Hawks typically cost the Army $12 million to $13 million each, and the newest model could cost $16 million to $18 million. By contrast, each AugustaWestland AW139 costs $10 million to $12 million, Aboulafia said.

Eurocopter and Bell Helicopter, which made the Hueys, would also be likely to bid if the Air Force held a competition, he said.

Sikorsky won the Army contract for the Black Hawk through a competition in 1976.

Paul F. Jackson, a Sikorsky spokesman, said that if Air Force officials decided to buy Black Hawks through that contract, they could “receive deliveries ahead of their schedule and benefit from the cost savings achieved by that agreement.”

Sikorsky’s supporters said the Black Hawks, which have been used extensively in war zones, would also need fewer security and safety modifications, which can add to costs and delays.

But Dan Hill, an official of AugustaWestland, a unit of Finmeccanica of Italy, said the Black Hawk “seems to be a 125 percent or 150 percent solution” that would also cost much more to operate than his company’s helicopter. “We just need a competition to make that case,” he said.

Whatever happens, contract lawyers say, the Pentagon would probably rather not mention one fact — that one of the main precedents for transferring military systems under the Economy Act occurred in the Iran-contra affair in 1986.

Investigators later found that the Defense Department had used the act to transfer missiles to the CIA, which sold them to Iran to raise money for the Nicaraguan contras.

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