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After years of legal wrangling, Airbus Helicopters, Inc. has finally received a contract from the U.S. Army for additional UH-72A Lakota helicopters.
The U.S. Department of Defense announced on March 8 that Airbus has been awarded a firm-fixed-price contract valued at approximately $273 million for the procurement of 35 Lakota aircraft.
According to Airbus, the procurement will include two configurations: 17 Lakotas for the initial entry rotary-wing training mission at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and 18 Lakotas for the observer/controller mission at the Army’s Combat Training Centers. In addition to the aircraft, the contract encompasses program management, and technical and flight operator manuals.
The contract follows a two-year court battle in which Leonardo Helicopters sought to block the sole-source procurement of Lakotas for training purposes, arguing that the Army should instead hold a competition to replace its fleet of aging Bell TH-67 training helicopters.
The decision to use Lakotas as trainers was one of several changes associated with the Army’s controversial Aviation Restructure Initiative (ARI), first announced in 2013. Among other things, ARI also divested the Army of its Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, replacing them with a combination of unmanned systems and Boeing AH-64 Apaches, some of those transferred from the National Guard.
Leonardo backed down from its legal challenge only last month. In the meantime, initial entry rotary-wing classes at Fort Rucker have been split between Lakotas and the last of the TH-67s.
“It is so imperative that the Army get their training helicopters to Fort Rucker as soon as possible,” Emerson told Vertical on Feb. 28, explaining that Army deliveries will be a top priority for Airbus. “They need to phase out the 67s, and get all their classes moving on the Lakota. It’s safer, it’s a better curriculum for them, and the sooner we can get them those aircraft, the sooner they can do that.”
Airbus has delivered more than 412 Lakotas since the Army competitively selected the model as its Light Utility Helicopter in 2006. The 35 called for in the latest contract could be the first of many more to come — in a 2016 court filing, the Army indicated that it had identified a need for another 97 Lakotas beyond the 16 it was then seeking for training purposes.
According to Emerson, those 97 aircraft reflect increased training requirements at Fort Rucker, as well a need for operational readiness float aircraft, especially with existing Lakotas coming up on overhaul. The Army is also seeking more Lakotas for the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, where the model is used for opposing forces training.
But Emerson suggested that the National Guard may seek additional Lakotas, too. The ARI called for transferring Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the active Army to National Guard units, as a way of balancing the transfer of Apaches out of the Guard. However, “it’s costly for Guard units to just operate Black Hawks,” Emerson pointed out, pitching the Lakota as a “great alternative.”