US Air Force hires nonprofit to help assess bids

WASHINGTON, Oct 7 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force, still aiming to award a $15 billion contract for new search and rescue helicopters this year, has brought in a private nonprofit group to help it assess three rival bids.

The Air Force, keen to avert another protest in a competition that has already been delayed for years by two earlier protests, last week told the companies it had asked the Logistics Management Institute to help evaluate their bids, according to two industry sources.

Boeing Co BA.N, which won the initial competition, is hoping to prevail once again over rival bidders Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp UTX.N, and Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N.

The Air Force also put off interim evaluation briefings it had planned with each of the companies this week, and they have not yet been rescheduled, said three industry sources, who asked not to be named.

The service told the companies it still hoped to complete the process before year’s end, but that may prove difficult since it must give the companies 10 days to submit final proposal revisions after those meetings take place.

Then, the Air Force needs time of its own -- typically 45 to 60 days -- to evaluate the final bids before making an award.

The Air Force had no immediate comment on the issue.

A Pentagon spokesman said the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) program was still undergoing a review by the Air Force and the Defense Department, aimed at averting the kind of problems experienced with a $34 billion competition for aerial refueling aircraft, also known as “KC-X.”

In that case, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office upheld a Boeing protest, and the Pentagon eventually decided to cancel its contract with Northrop Grumman Corp NOC.N and its European partner EADS EAD.PA, pushing the whole process off until a new administration takes office next year.

“We want to ensure that the things we learned from KC-X are properly incorporated into the CSAR-X source selection,” said Pentagon spokesman Chris Isleib. “The desire is to complete source selection as soon as possible, but not before we are ready.”

Chief Pentagon weapons buyer John Young is now overseeing the tanker competition, and he also has officials closely monitoring the helicopter competition.

The Logistics Management Institute is a nonprofit consulting group that was created in 1961 and has worked on issues for the Pentagon, the Air Force and other military agencies, as well as other federal agencies.

On its website, the company says it helps federal agencies by supporting their acquisition and source selection processes, as well as providing independent cost and schedule estimates.

Air Force acquisition chief Sue Payton said last month she would step up legal reviews and ask for independent reviews of the helicopter competition, if required. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)