WASHINGTON: Defense lawmakers blessed the Navy’s plans to begin a new multiyear plan to bolster its fleet of MH-60 combat helicopters, according to legislation passed this week.

Earlier this week, lawmakers approved two new multiyear procurement plans pitched by the Navy as part of the final version of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill. The legislation was delivered to the White House this week after the House and Senate signed off on the defense policy package. President Obama has yet to sign the bill into law.

The first new multiyear will let the Navy buy airframes for the final 100 R-models of the combat helicopter, according to the legislation. That effort will be led by the Army in partnership with the Navy. Army leaders will use that same multiyear to procure airframes for its fleet of UH-60 Blackhawks, according to the bill. The second multiyear will be Navy-led and focus on upgrading the avionics systems on board the MH-60. Those avionics will be key in the service’s efforts to build a common cockpit for both the R and S models of the aircraft. Procurement of the new helicopters and the avionics systems will be spread over a five year period.

Using multiyears for the MH-60 program could save the Navy millions in procurement costs, since the service will basically be buying these helicopters and equipment in bulk. Traditional acquisition deals are based on costs per unit. The downside is the money set aside by the Navy for MH-60 procurements and upgrades will essentially be frozen for the next five years under the new multiyear deals. That means the Navy cannot take those dollars and use them to pay other bills in the service budget.

Some inside the Pentagon argue the Navy cannot afford to lose flexibility in its coffers since it will need all the flexibility it can get in the face of looming budget cuts. Others claim the Pentagon needs more, not less, multiyear-type deals to ease the coming blow to defense spending. That said, the Navy is also pursuing a new multiyear deal for the V-22 Osprey and possibly the Marine Corps’ new Amphibious Combat Vehicle. The Navy is guaranteeing a 10 percent savings in both MH-60 procurement and upgrade costs via the new multiyear plans. We will have to see if the service can stick to that goal.