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Connecticut lawmakers still have questions over Sikorsky bid for Army helicopter contract

Owen Franken / Corbis

Connecticut lawmakers are frustrated after the Army again rebuffed repeated requests for a briefing about how it decided against Sikorsky for its future long-range assault aircraft contract.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation say they have received only vague answers about why the proposal from Texas-based Textron Inc.’s Bell was selected over Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky, based in Stratford, for a contract worth up to $7.1 billion. The new model will be the eventual replacement to Sikorsky’s Black Hawk helicopters.

Lawmakers have made repeated attempts to get a more comprehensive briefing from the department about its criteria, but Army leadership has denied those requests because of the ongoing process of a formal challenge initiated by Sikorsky, which could take a few more months. They recently said their requests were denied for a fourth time.

“We have heard in very vague terms about what the reasons may be, but they’ve never been forthcoming publicly on the record, which they have an obligation to do,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Friday.

“These kinds of unofficial hints or vague descriptions of reasons that may be involved are simply no substitute for a public authoritative explanation for a profoundly consequential decision for our nation’s defense security,” he added.

The biggest open question for members like Blumenthal is over the price difference between the two bids. While they have only heard about cost estimates, they say that Sikorsky’s Defiant-X is significantly more affordable than Bell’s V-280 Valor. And they argue that getting an Army briefing could provide them with real numbers.

Blumenthal said he was also told that Sikorsky’s bid was essentially disqualified over a “so-called technical issue, concerning equipment that may be added to the helicopter later in its life.”

In addition to the cost, lawmakers view the model as superior to Bell’s. Blumenthal said Defiant-X has better maneuverability and at least comparable range, while Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., argues that Bell’s use of a tilt-rotor is a “very risky technology.” He said Sikorsky’s version is “a modernized product of what they used for years.”

“My understanding is that there is a chasm between the cost of the Bell product and the cost of the Sikorsky product,” Murphy said Friday. “It’s not uncommon for there to be a 5 to 10% cost difference. This cost difference was way bigger than the normal difference in bids.”

“On its face, this decision doesn’t make sense, so you’re left trying to figure out why a company got a bid despite the fact there was another qualified bidder at a much, much lower price,” Murphy said.

The lawmakers argued that a briefing is critical to help clear up their questions and concerns over the price difference, the technology and any other criteria that was used to make the decision. But the Army maintains that it will not give them one until the resolution of the contract award protest.

Murphy, however, pointed out that there is a history of Congress getting access to information during an open protest. He said that when Connecticut’s Pratt & Whitney sought a contract for a refueling tanker years ago, the Air Force provided members with a briefing while the challenge was happening. Plus, Murphy noted that there is a statute surrounding government procurements and acquisitions that allow them to conduct oversight.

After losing the bid in December, Sikorsky filed a formal appeal to the Army’s selection, a process that could take a few more months and could wrap up by early April.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency for Congress, is reviewing Sikorsky’s challenge and has up to 100 days to make its non-binding decision. GAO can recommend whether to sustain, deny or dismiss Sikorsky’s protest.

If the GAO sustains the protesters’ arguments, it will recommend that the agency involved — in this case the Army — address the violation. The Army can then decide whether to go along with the recommendation.

Doug Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, responded to Murphy’s letter about a briefing on Monday that “the Army is not engaging on the topic until GAO renders a decision,” according to Army spokesperson Ellen Lovett.

Connecticut lawmakers have had some contact with the Army since the decision in early December. But at the time, there were legal barriers to getting certain information before Sikorsky and Bell received their debriefings.

The state’s entire congressional delegation then sent a letter last month to the Army secretary requesting a detailed briefing as soon as possible.

But after several denials, Blumenthal said he has informally asked for a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee but noted that a decision is at the discretion of Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. Blumenthal said he was encouraged to try to get more information from the Army “without the need for hearings.” But he is exploring the need for either a standalone one on the bid or as part of a larger hearing on strategy.

Connecticut’s lawmakers have a vested interest in the success of Sikorsky, its workforce and suppliers, since it is based in their state and represents a significant part of its defense industry and economy. They said they believe public information about the helicopter contract is important for all American taxpayers to know, particularly if there is a major difference in affordability.

Sikorsky’s headquarters are located in Stratford, which is in Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s 3rd District. DeLauro is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for funding government agencies, including the procurement of military aircraft.

“It is outrageous that members of Congress, despite repeated demands, have been continually denied information on how the Army made their decision on the FLRAA contract. Yet Congress will be expected to foot the bill at the end of the day,” DeLauro said in a statement on Thursday. “This is impacting labor and jobs right here in Stratford, Connecticut.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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