WASHINGTON —The U.S. Air Force has selected Boeing to replace the service's aging fleet of UH-1N Iroquois helicopters, which are currently tasked with security missions as well as protecting America's nuclear missile arsenal.
The long-awaited Pentagon contract is worth $2.4 billion for up to 84 aircraft. The service awarded Boeing approximately $375 million for the first four helicopters on Monday.
"Strong competition drove down costs for the program, resulting in $1.7 billion in savings to the taxpayer," Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement.
Three defense companies were in the running for the lucrative Pentagon contract: Sierra Nevada Corp., Boeing partnered with Leonardo, and Sikorsky, a unit of Lockheed Martin.
Both Sierra Nevada and Sikorsky offered derivatives of the Black Hawk medium lift-utility helicopter and Boeing alongside Leonardo is pitching the MH-139, a militarized version of Leonardo's AW139 commercial aircraft.
"The MH-139 is is an aircraft that the Air Force doesn't have to go and pay to develop because it's already flying," Rick Lemaster, Director of Global Sales and Marketing for Boeing's Vertical Lift and Military Aircraft programs, told CNBC in a prior interview. He added that more than 250 governments already use the civilian version of the helicopter.
"The life cycle of the aircraft is notionally a 30-year life cycle and will be able to save the Air Force about a billion dollars in terms of buying and operating over that time frame. That's real money," he added.
Manufactured by Bell, UH-1N, the helicopter affectionately called "Huey," first entered service in 1970 to assist in search and rescue missions. Since then, the Air Force has expanded the Huey's role to include flying above nuclear missile silos and VIP transportation.
The Air Force has been eyeing a replacement for the aging UH-1N fleet for more than a decade. The first manifestation of the service's ambition to procure new helicopters came in December 2016 when the Air Force issued its initial request for proposal.