Army Will Spend Millions Fixing New Billion-Dollar Chopper

By Asa Eslocker

Nov 27, 2007 1:24pm

The Army plans to spend an extra $10 million to reconfigure more than 100 new choppers purchased in a $2.6 billion contract, following a highly critical independent Pentagon review of the aircraft’s ability to perform key operations, first reported on the Blotter on ABCNews.com.  "No aircraft is perfect," Army spokesman Maj. Thomas McCuin told ABCNews.com. "This one met our requirements at a good price. It’s the best value for the American taxpayer’s dollar." The Army’s purchase of 322 Lakota helicopters, made by EADS Eurocopter for homeland defense and national disaster relief, has been under fire since field tests this summer uncovered at least three serious deficiencies. According to the Army’s Operational Test and Evaluation Report, the Lakota chopper was found to be "not operationally effective for MEDEVAC missions," "not effective for use in hot environments" and "cannot meet its prescribed performance criteria to lift an external load of 2,200 pounds." Congressman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., questioned whether the helicopter could lift buckets of water for fighting California forest fires given its limited lifting ability. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage. The Army defends its purchase and says such retrofitting is standard operating procedure. "Despite the bluster to the effect that these tests revealed a helicopter with tragic flaws, the system is functioning exactly as it is intended to work," says Maj. McCuin. Maj. McCuin says the report is intended to assist in the improvement of newly purchased equipment. "The purpose of [the report] is to place a limited number of aircraft in their intended roles under mission conditions and uncover areas that need improvement.  That is exactly what happened here," he said. As part of the post-testing process, Maj. McCuin says the Army plans to reconfigure the Lakota with air conditioning units and internal fixtures to help the MEDEVAC teams. "The improved configuration will provide better equipment storage, enhance the flight medic’s ability to care for patients during transport and is part of the approved Army Cost Position for…MEDEVAC aircraft," he said. Regarding the underperforming lift capacity, McCuin says, "There has never been a ‘requirement’ for the Light Utility Helicopter to lift a 2,200-pound external load."  The Army’s report says the Lakota "does not meet the 2,200-pound external lift requirement," but it "successfully delivered external loads weighing 1,190 pounds." According to McCuin, the 2,200-pound amount is a "’tradable attribute,’ a desired capability that is not a requirement and can be traded for another attribute. In this case, the capability to lift 2,200 pounds was determined not to be as important as another attribute." Another official U.S. Army document, obtained by the Blotter on ABCNews.com, says the Lakota helicopter was chosen "because the price was more important" than the technical requirements. Many in Congress, including Congressman Hunter, however, believe that lift capacity should be one of the more important attributes, especially in the wake of the recent wildfires in his state. "The Lakota is unable to handle the 300-gallon ‘buckets’ which other helicopters utilize," Hunter recently wrote to the Army. In the letter to Army Secretary Pete Geren, Hunter went as far to recommend the termination of the Lakota contract. "We would be well-advised to terminate the planned buy of 322 Lakota helicopters," he wrote. Though there is a smaller water bucket to fight fires for these choppers, McCuin says that "those fires were much too large for a utility helicopter to have much of an effect on."  Further, he says, those choppers were in MEDEVAC configuration and not equipped at that time to fight the fires. The Army purchased for the Lakota UH-72A Light Utility Helicopter from EADS Eurocopter, a European defense contractor that builds the non-combat choppers in Columbus, Miss. "Procurement is a complicated business," Maj. McCuin said. Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team?

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