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Dorr: New UH-72 Lakotas could better protect missile sites

Jun. 18, 2013 - 03:33PM   |  
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An Army helicopter may be the solution to the Air Force's need for security at the nation's intercontinental ballistic missile sites.

An Army helicopter may be the solution to the Air Force's need for security at the nation's intercontinental ballistic missile sites.

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An Army helicopter may be the solution to the Air Force’s need for security at the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile sites.

The ICBMs belong to Global Strike Command, which operates 25 decrepit UH-1N Twin Huey helicopters intended to rush Security Forces troops into harm’s way on short notice. The troops would confront the unthinkable: terrorists attempting to seize an ICBM silo or a nuclear warhead in transit.

We have great Security Forces airmen and solid plans. The weak link is the helicopter.

The 1960s-vintage UH-1N performs poorly in “high” and “hot” conditions like those at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., which stands at 6,062 feet elevation and has summer temperatures exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

In January, I wrote the Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom would make a good UH-1N replacement.

And it would. But my numbers suggest a factory-fresh UH-1Y would have a sticker price of $30 million. There’s an another new helicopter that could do the job for about $20 million.

EADS North America assembles the UH-72 Lakota in Columbus, Miss. CEO Sean O’Keefe wrote in Defense News, a companion to this newspaper, that budget pressures are forcing the Army to “slash its most successful helicopter program.” EADS-NA delivered 257 UH-72s in one of the few defense programs that is on cost, on schedule. But if the Army drops its “buy” from 349 to 318, the Columbus plant will shut down at the end of next year — a catastrophic blow to the U.S. industrial base.

An Air Force purchase would save the factory. The solution more commonly suggested for Global Strike is a service-life extension program, or SLEP, that would refurbish the UH-1N. But Global Strike boss Lt. Gen. James Kowalski isn’t having any of it.

In April, Kowalski told the Senate, “The UH-1N’s deficiencies in range, speed and payload can only be remedied through replacement with a new platform.”

Kowalski took a demonstration flight in a UH-72 on April 26. EADS-NA vice president, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Coolidge, flew with him. Coolidge told me in an interview that the UH-1N platform poses “an unsustainable dilemma” and an alternate possibility, a new-start program, is “unaffordable.”

The Air Force has wanted for years to replace Global Strike’s UH-1Ns plus 37 UH-1Ns scattered at various bases, including some charged with evacuating government officials in Washington in an emergency. There, too, “high” and “hot” performance matters. The UH-1N is flatly incapable of performing this national security mission on a hot summer day.

An Air Force UH-72 purchase would protect our ICBM sites, reinvigorate our aging helicopter fleet and bolster industry.

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