US Air Force helicopter plan slips again

WASHINGTON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - A troubled potential $15 billion purchase of U.S. combat rescue helicopters will be delayed beyond December to spell out more clearly how the winner will be picked, the Air Force said on Wednesday.

The service said it planned a minor amendment to bidding documents to further clarify how it will choose, causing a “minor” delay of unspecified duration in awarding a contract.

The delay made it more likely the choice would fall to the next administration.

Boeing Co BA.N won the initial competition to supply 141 helicopters in November 2006 valued at up to $15 billion.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress' referee of contested awards, upheld two subsequent protests by rivals Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N and United Technologies Corp's UTX.N Sikorsky unit.

In sustaining these challenges, the GAO faulted the way the Air Force had evaluated the three competing helicopters’ operating costs.

The award of a contract for the Combat Search and Rescue aircraft, or CSAR-X, will be delayed past the latest, December, target “but we don’t know how long,” said Lt. Col. Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman.

The service’s chief weapons buyer, Sue Payton, and her staff are assessing the impact, Stefanek added in an email. Even before the latest announced delay, analysts had said a decision this year would be hard to complete given the normal time to evaluate final bids, which have not yet been submitted.

The service said the companies involved had been told the pending amendment would be released soon. It did not specify when.

Sikorsky said it was glad the Air Force was taking all the time it needed. “So bring on the new amendment,” said Paul Jackson, a company spokesman.

Troy Scully, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said, “We understand the importance of this program to the Air Force and we stand ready to support the path forward.”

Boeing had no immediate comment.

The Air Force is keen to avoid any renewed protests of its ultimate CSAR-X choice for fear of adding to the two years the program already has slipped and its other acquisition headaches.

The service is struggling with setbacks to its No. 1 acquisition priority, a marathon effort to start buying a new aerial refueling fleet.

The tanker program was delayed after Boeing successfully challenged an award valued at $35 billion to Northrop Grumman Corp NOC.N and its European partner EADS EAD.PA.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in September he was leaving the outcome of that politically charged competition to the president who is to be elected Nov. 4 and take office on Jan. 20.

In its statement, the Air Force said the fresh CSAR-X delay had nothing to do with a continuing review by the Defense Department’s inspector general of the helicopter’s “requirements development process.”

The service said it expected the inspector general to issue a final report on this matter “later this year.” (Reporting by Jim Wolf, editing by Richard Chang)