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US Navy launches training helicopter competition

30th January 2019 - 10:57 GMT | by Jason Sherman in New York

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The US Navy has formally launched a competition to replace its aging fleet of TH-57 training helicopters, offering a more than $900 million prize to the OEM that can best meet its requirement to deliver 130 rotorcraft over a five-year period for its Advanced Helicopter Training System, dubbed TH-XX.

On 28 January, Naval Air Systems Command published a notice asking industry to submit by 2 April proposals to replace the TH-57B/C fleet used to train pilots with a solicitation that is expected to draw at least three contenders, including Bell, Leonardo Helicopters and Airbus Helicopters.

'It's finally getting real,' said Jeremiah Gertler, an aerospace analyst with the Congressional Research Service in Washington, DC, of the plan to replace the TH-57 Sea Ranger, which were originally procured between 1981 and 1985 and have been eyed for replacement since 2005.

The navy plans to announce the winning bid during Q1 FY2020, sometime between October and December.

According to the RfP, the navy has set a $913 million plan to acquire the 130 aircraft fleet over five years, including $215.2 million in FY2020, $213.3 million in F2021, $218.2 million in FY2022, $108 million in FY2023, and $158.7 million in FY2024.

Unlike some military training aircraft which are tailored to highly specific DoD requirements - such as the USAF's recent T-X fighter aircraft trainer - the navy is shopping for a commercial aircraft.

'It is also not like T-X where you are buying something radical and new,' said Gertler. 'This is about going down to the corner helicopter store and buying something out of the showroom that is pretty much stock.'

'This competition has a relatively low cost of entry for the companies,' Gertler added, 'because the requirements are not very different from things they are already building. So it is a chance for everyone to jump in.'

Three companies have indicated interest in the competition, which is for a commercial aircraft. Bell has signaled interest in spreading its bet by offering two aircraft, its single engine 407GXi and twin-engine 429. Leonardo,  fresh from a major Pentagon win with Boeing for USAF's $3.8 billion UH-1N replacement programme, will offer the TH-119, a derivative of its AW119.  Airbus intends to offer its twin-engine H135. Sikorsky and Boeing have not yet indicated whether they will respond to the solicitation.

‘We're going to give the navy exactly what they are asking for and that is a better tool for the job,’ Andrew Gappy, TH-119 programme manager, explained to reporters on 30 January. ‘The navy's objective is not to change training, they want a better piece of equipment.

‘Our offer of the TH-119,’ he said, ‘can do 100% of all their current training manoeuvres and syllabus requirements. We also provide them room for growth for any additional training requirements.’

Dan Gouré, a defence expert at the Lexington Institute, expects the TH-XX contest to be vigorous. 'This is an area that has a lot of competitors,' said Gouré. 'A lot of good players, whether it is Airbus or Leonardo or Lockheed Martin Sikorsky, Bell. 

'This is one area where it should be a robust competition from players – all of whom have very credible commercial platforms to work on, all of whom have at least some experience in working with the Pentagon. That is a good thing and should make this an interesting competition overall,' he added.

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