The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of attending the delivery ceremony for Sikorsky’s 5,000th Black Hawk helicopter. It’s a tremendous feat. For the past 40 years, the U.S. armed forces and our allies and partners have flown Black Hawks for countless missions -- from carrying the troops that brought Osama Bin Laden to justice to evacuating injured service members on the battlefield.
The Black Hawk has served our nation with distinction but, after half a century, it’s rightfully time for the U.S. Army to modernize. That’s why in 2019 the service put out a call for proposals for the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program to replace the Black Hawk. Sikorsky designed the Defiant -- a nimble, advanced design of coaxial rotating blades, offering an unparalleled combination of price, maneuverability and range. Another company, Bell Textron, a company with a long and troubled history of making assault helicopters, submitted a proposal for an unproven tiltrotor aircraft that would require building an entire new supply chain and basing infrastructure. To make matters worse, even without factoring in the costs of a new supply chain and maintenance facilities, the upfront price of the Bell Textron tiltrotor was significantly more expensive than the Defiant.
Sikorsky had the better track record; the better product; and a much, much lower cost to taxpayers. So why on earth did the Army award the FLRAA contract to Bell Textron for the significantly more expensive, less reliable Valor V-280 tiltrotor aircraft? Why didn’t the Army take into consideration the excessive maintenance costs and poor operational readiness of the V-22 Osprey -- the predecessor to Bell’s V-280 Valor?
For the last two months, members of Congress have been asking these questions. They are important questions because this award could put taxpayers on the hook for a budget-busting boondoggle. But maddeningly, the Army has refused to brief Congress on the reasons for the Bell Textron award. The service says it cannot brief Congress until Sikorsky’s protest of the bid is resolved, but in fact there is no precedent for this withholding of information. The Department of Defense has briefed Congress before while a protest is pending, and the law clearly carves out Congress from any confidentiality protections surrounding bids.
As a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, it’s my job not only to represent my constituents in Connecticut, but also to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars and ensure the American public is spending only what is necessary for our country’s defense. Sikorsky’s decision to file a protest suggests it has very good reason to believe the Army erred in its evaluation process or treated Sikorsky’s bid unfairly. If the Army did make an incorrect decision, it needs to be held accountable, and the contract reevaluated. When the numbers don’t add up, we need answers.
Our efforts to obtain information have been exhaustive. Over the past two months, members of Congress have repeatedly requested a briefing from Army officials to explain their decision. After denying our requests four separate times, we urged Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to direct the Department of the Army to provide a briefing on how this contract was awarded. Finally, the Army offered us a call with a senior official. But instead of providing us with any substantive answers to our many questions, the service continued to stonewall our constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities and misrepresent the Army’s clear statutory obligation to provide the requested information to members of Congress.
My best guess is that the Army is refusing to brief lawmakers because it will confirm our serious misgivings about a subjective evaluation process that led to a flawed decision. I fear the Army is afraid the American public will reel from sticker shock when they learn just how much more expensive the Bell tiltrotor is compared to Sikorsky’s Defiant. Sikorsky’s bid is not only significantly more affordable, it’s also better suited to the Army’s modernization goals, infrastructure and future missions. I believe the wrong decision was made, and we deserve to know why.
Let’s be clear: The Army is not exempt from congressional oversight. The Founding Fathers explicitly grant Congress the power “to raise and support Armies,” and I intend to fulfill my constitutional obligation to do so. If the FLRAA procurement process was truly fair, the Army should have no issue explaining that to us. But the longer Army officials refuse oversight by the people’s elected representatives, then more questions are going to be raised about what they might be hiding.
Editor’s Note: Sikorsky employs about 8,000 people in Sen. Murphy’s home state of Connecticut. Sikorsky’s parent company, Lockheed Martin, contributed $5,000 to a leadership political action committee associated with Murphy, MURPHPAC, in 2018. Murphy’s office said that they have stopped accepting PAC funds, and that Lockheed Martin has not made any subsequent contributions.