The long-standing animus between Airbus and Leonardo over U.S. government contracts is continuing in the wake of the U.S. Navy’s award of the TH-73A training helicopter program to the latter. The Navy announced on January 13 that it had selected Leonardo to provide up to 130 TH-73A training helicopters, military derivatives of the single-engine AW119, in a deal potentially worth more than $680 million. Airbus had proposed its H135 light twin for the mission and filed a protest on February 3 contesting the award. In statement to AIN, an Airbus Helicopters spokesman said, “While we respect the Navy’s right to choose the asset that best meets its needs, we believe that certain technical aspects of our proposal were not assessed accurately. We’re confident that when these technical misunderstandings have been clarified, the Navy will be reassured that the H135 is not only the best overall value for taxpayers but also the most suitable aircraft for the mission. The H135 is a proven military trainer with more than 355,000 training flight hours logged by 10 U.S. allies around the world.”
Leonardo defended the award, with a spokesman there telling AIN, “Leonardo believes the U.S. Navy executed a thorough and competitively bid procurement process for its TH-73 helicopter program, selecting the best-value Leonardo TH-119. We remain committed to the Navy’s vital training mission and program timeline.”
A third bidder for the contract, Bell, which was offering its 407GXi single for the Navy mission, is not protesting the award “at this time,” a spokesman told AIN.
This is not the first time Airbus and Leonardo have pursued legal action as the result of a U.S. DoD helicopter contract award. In 2014, Leonardo protested add-on orders for more Airbus UH-72A Lakota helicopters for the U.S. Army’s training mission at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in proceedings that dragged on for more than three years and threatened to shut down the UH-72A production line in Columbus, Mississippi. Leonardo claimed the Army bypassed the competitive bidding process in making the award. The legal wrangling finally came to an end in 2018, when Leonardo withdrew its latest lawsuit concerning the award after a defeat in the U.S. Court of Appeals. But there was no doubt as to the bitterness Leonardo’s legal tactics left with Airbus executives. Two weeks before the Court of Appeals decision, Chris Emerson, then CEO of Airbus’s North American arm, said Leonardo’s conduct threatened the entire defense department acquisition process and “constituted a credible threat to every major player in the defense industry by a company that had nothing to lose.”