Friday, November 9, 2007

Army Buying 322 Helicopters that Overheat for Homeland Security?

If anything reflects the current state of our government, it's the Army's purchase of 322 Lakota helicopters intended to rescue people. Twelve helicopters have been delivered by manufacturer EADS. One Congressman expressed serious reservations about the capability of the lighweight helicopter to provide the kind of assistance needed in a disaster.

The first problem is the cockpit overheats in eighty degree weather. That means air conditioners need to be installed at additional expense. The craft is only capable of transporting one critically ill patient at a time. It cannot accomodate the clinical staff needed to care for two patients en route.

Due to these limitations, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA is recommending the purchase of BlackHawk helicopters instead. While reading the piece a number of questions popped into my head. Why is the Army buying these instead of Homeland Security? Was this part of a planned budget or an inserted earmark? And who has an interest in steering business their campaign contributer's way?

Why the Army? The program is part of the Army National Guard, which clearly has a Homeland Security role. Oddly the description on the manufacturer's website had the copters role as drug interdiction. I wasn't aware the National Guard hunted drug smugglers. The press release stated:

UH-72A Lakota aircraft will be operated primarily within the U.S. for homeland security operations, medical evacuation, passenger/logistics transportation and drug interdiction missions. Many of them will be assigned to Army National Guard units in locations throughout the country, allowing older-generation helicopters to be retired and freeing up larger rotary-wing aircraft for assignment to other duties including deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This blurb raised another question. Where will the other helicopters be assigned if they're not in an Army National Guard unit and outside the U.S.? Customs does drug interdiction, but if that's the case, the program begins to look like a hydra with multiple heads.

While I suspected earmark, the program seems planned, but surprisingly fluid as earlier information indicated. Consider what GlobalSecurity said about its mission:

When the operational need arises, the LUH will facilitate the commander’s ability to conduct disaster relief operations, civil search and rescue, augmentation of UH-60 MEDEVAC aircraft, counter drug operations, conduct of Homeland Security, and other mission requirements such as catastrophic emergencies and support to civilian agencies against internal threats or national emergencies if directed by the President.

So who benefits from this potpourri of helicopter purchases intended to meet various and sundry needs? EADS makes the Lakota and they contributed to Congress during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. Rep. Duncan Hunter's name is nowhere to be seen on their contribution list. However, Mr. Hunter is well supported by two other helicopter makers, Lockheed Martin and United Technologies. United Technologies makes the BlackHawk, Rep. Hunter wants substituted.

I certainly don't want the government to purchase equipment incapable of meeting our citizen's needs. And I certainly understand the need to quickly move sick and injured people away from a disaster area. But I'm not sure I'm comfortable with our overstretched/contracted out Army coordinating the program, even if they've subbed it out to one of their former members.

My retired military friends say the U.S. military is virtually all soldiers now, with everything else outsourced to private companies. Those wouldn't be the same companies charging America's new stinking rich $50,000 a year for rescue services, would they? Whose equipment will they maintain and supply first?

At this point I don't know enough other than to say I'm uncomfortable and have more questions. They grew as I read more about the program. While it's marketed for its rescue and patient transfer capacity, I continue to be surprised by EADS' own revelations:

Other UH-72As are performing VIP airlift and transport duties at Ft. Eustis/Ft. Monroe in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region.

The Bush administration certainly knows how to take care of VIP's but unfortunately has a poor track record addressing my past concerns and needs for information. I'd like to think they will do better in the future, but I already have data on their process incapability.