WASHINGTON -- One is perhaps the best-known helicopter in the world, Marine One, and uses the south lawn of the White House as its landing pad. The other, the combat rescue helicopter, performs the "sacred mission" of saving downed troops.
Winning the contract for either program would be a major coup for any defense contractor, worth hundreds of millions. But when the bidding opened for both contracts, only one company came forward.
Now, the Army is looking to replace its training helicopters. But the program isn't being put out to the market for competition. Rather, the Army intends to purchase an additional 100 Lakota UH-72 helicopters from Airbus. No chance for other companies to bid.
With defense budgets tightening, Pentagon acquisitions officials say that fostering competition is one of the best ways to drive prices down and ensure efficiency. And defense officials have made competition top priority, saying in a recent report that it "is the single best way to motivate contractors to provide the best value."
Despite those efforts, the percentage of defense contract obligations that were competed dropped to 57 percent last year, the lowest in nearly a decade. And in the four years since the Pentagon started setting goals for competition, it never has met them.
The Government Accountability Office said in a recent report that the Pentagon "continues to obligate significant amounts on one-offer awards"-- contracts that receive only one bid. In 2013, $22.6 billion was awarded in contracts that only had a single bidder, the GAO found.
A number of factors are behind the decrease in competition, officials say. With less money to go around, service contracts geared to small- or medium-sized companies that often produce the most competition are being cut. Budget cuts also are forcing companies to look for work elsewhere, such as the commercial sector and overseas.
And they have to be judicious about what contracts to pursue.
"Industry has a limited amount of money to prepare proposals, and a company is not going to waste money preparing a proposal if they think the government really wants to keep the incumbent," said Daniel Gordon, associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University. "Companies are watching for signals about whether the military services and defense agencies really want competition."