April 6, 2007 / 10:30 PM / 12 years ago

McCain questions U.S. helicopter pick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Questions over the U.S. Air Force’s choice of a Boeing Co. helicopter for search and rescue have been raised by Sen. John McCain, who criticized the service’s original choice for new aerial refueling tankers.

The Arizona Republican, in a April 4 letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, expressed concern that the requirement for a medium-lift helicopter resulted in the selection of a heavier aircraft.

The Air Force agreed last month to reopen talks with all suppliers after congressional auditors backed protests over the original contract award to Boeing for its twin-rotor HH-47 Chinook.

McCain, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, requested numerous documents related to the program and said it was critical that the Air Force buy new rescue helicopters in a manner befitting its second-highest acquisition priority.

“Unfortunately recent developments in this program do not inspire confidence that this is the case,” said McCain’s letter, a copy of which was made available on Thursday.

An Air Force official said McCain’s request was consistent with how the service works with all members of congressional committees.

“We are reviewing his request and we will respond as appropriate. However, we are confident the CSAR-X (Combat Search and Rescue helicopter) platform met all key performance parameters as required in the request for a proposal,” the official said.

The Air Force’s selection of Boeing’s Chinook on November 9 surprised industry observers who expected one of its lighter rivals to win the contract, worth as much as $15 billion.

In February, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s audit and investigative arm, backed protests by losing bidders Sikorsky, a United Technologies Corp. unit, and Lockheed Martin Corp.. The GAO cited inconsistencies in the Air Force’s evaluation of operations and support costs for the new fleet.

Sikorsky had offered its HH-92 helicopter, while Lockheed had teamed with AgustaWestland Inc., a unit of Italian defense manufacturer Finmeccanica SpA, to pitch the 101 helicopter — already picked as the new presidential helicopter.

The Air Force says its top acquisition priority is new mid-air refueling aircraft. A plan to lease and buy Boeing tankers was derailed more than two years ago by a scandal in which a former senior Air Force weapons buyer was convicted of violating conflict-of-interest laws for negotiating a job with Boeing while still overseeing its business with the Air Force.

The scandal saw the former official, Darleen Druyun, serve nine months in jail, and led to the resignation of then-Air Force Secretary James Roche and his top acquisition official. It also prompted intense congressional scrutiny of the aerial tanker program and other weapons deals.

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