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Sikorsky challenge to Army helicopter contract is denied

Sikorsky President Paul Lemmo, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont were on hand to celebrate Sikorsky's 100th anniversary and the delivery of its 5,000th Black Hawk helicopter in January.
Sikorsky President Paul Lemmo, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont were on hand to celebrate Sikorsky's 100th anniversary and the delivery of its 5,000th Black Hawk helicopter in January.

A federal watchdog agency denied Sikorsky’s challenge to the Army’s decision to reject its bid to build the eventual successor to the Black Hawk, dealing a blow to the Stratford-based company and Connecticut’s defense sector.

The Government Accountability Office, which was tasked with reviewing the challenge, concluded in a decision released on Thursday that the Army “reasonably evaluated Sikorsky’s proposal as technically unacceptable” for the future long-range assault aircraft (FLRAA) contract. Sikorsky filed an initial protest on Dec. 28 and a supplemental one in February.

The Army’s FLRAA contract was awarded in December to Texas-based Textron Inc.’s Bell over Sikorsky. The contract is worth $1.3 billion to start and up to $7.1 billion for an initial round of production.

According to the federal agency, Sikorsky raised issues about the Army’s selection of Bell’s model — the tilt rotor V-280 Valor — arguing that the proposal was “unacceptable” when it came to engineering design, development evaluation factor and architecture sub-factor. Sikorsky also took issue with the evaluation of the cost estimates.

But the GAO ultimately denied and dismissed the protest for a few reasons, noting that the merits of both prototypes are left up to the agency seeking the procurement, which in this case is the Army.

“In denying the protest, GAO concluded that the Army reasonably evaluated Sikorsky’s proposal as technically unacceptable because Sikorsky failed to provide the level of architectural detail required by the RFP (request for proposal),” GAO said in a statement released Thursday.

“GAO also denied Sikorsky’s various allegations about the acceptability of Bell’s proposal, including the assertion that the agency’s evaluation violated the terms of the solicitation or applicable procurement law or regulation,” the statement continues. “Finally, GAO dismissed Sikorsky’s additional arguments on the basis that Sikorsky was no longer an interested party to further challenge the procurement.”

Bell was Sikorsky’s only competition in vying to produce the Black Hawk’s successor through the FLRAA program, which began in 2019 as part of an initiative to replace some of the assault and utility helicopters in the Army’s fleet. Sikorsky has been producing the Black Hawk since the 1970s and will continue to do so through at least 2027 for a different Army contract.

Sikorsky is one of the biggest defense contractors in Connecticut and employs thousands of people in the state. More than 200 businesses act as suppliers to Sikorsky by providing various services, materials and products to the company.

“Sikorsky has the world’s greatest workforce when it comes to vertical lift aircraft and decades of proven results when it comes to supplying the U.S. Armed Forces and militaries across the globe with safe dependable military and commercial birds,” Connecticut’s congressional delegation of five House members and two senators said in a joint statement. “We will work to uncover the Army’s process for making this decision and fight to keep jobs here in Connecticut.”

The Lockheed Martin-owned company partnered with Boeing and entered the competition with the Defiant-X. Those companies said they will review the decision and decide how to proceed.

“We remain confident the Lockheed Martin Sikorsky and Boeing team submitted the most capable, affordable and lowest-risk Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft solution,” according to a statement from Lockheed Martin Sikorsky and Boeing. “We will review the GAO’s decision and determine our next steps.”

Beyond the statement, GAO could not offer more details about the denial of the challenge. The agency said it needs the respective parties “to promptly identify information that cannot be publicly released” in order to put out a public version of the protest decision.

Sikorsky has won and lost appeals over the years, though Sikorsky president Paul Lemmo noted that Lockheed Martin does not often pursue challenges to contract awards. The parent company acquired Sikorsky in 2015.

As a watchdog agency for Congress, GAO reviews appeals to government contracts and can recommend whether to sustain, deny or dismiss a protest. GAO had 100 days with an April 7 deadline to make its non-binding recommendation regarding Sikorsky.

Since late last year, Connecticut’s congressional delegation has been vehemently pushing for a detailed briefing with the Army to understand why Sikorsky lost out on the contract to Bell. Those requests were denied nearly half a dozen times, with Army leadership citing the ongoing protest as a reason to hold off on such a briefing.

The lawmakers argued that major questions remained over cost estimates between the two prototypes as well as why Sikorsky was essentially disqualified over a “so-called technical issue” related to equipment that would be added later to the Blackhawk replacement.

While they never received the briefing they repeatedly requested, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently vowed to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that his department will give a “thorough briefing on this issue” after the resolution of the protest. Blumenthal said he got similar promises from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.

“I am deeply disappointed … and infuriated by the lack of explanation so far” from GAO, Blumenthal said in an interview. “I think it is misguided from what we know so far about the Sikorsky vs. Bell helicopters.”

Blumenthal, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sikorsky still has options to keep up its challenge to the contract. Until he sees the full GAO report and hears from the Army, Blumenthal said, many unanswered questions remain.

“What’s most striking is how little detail or factual material they present. We have a responsibility for oversight, and taxpayers have a right to the best possible helicopter that America can produce,” he said. “This decision has international ramifications.”

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

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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