The Air Force has unveiled its plans for moving ahead with the bidding process for its next-generation, combat-search-and-rescue helicopter, a.k.a. CSAR-X.

As we noted yesterday, the CSAR-X program has become a hot potato since Boeing’s HH-47 Chinook was declared the winner last November. Other entrants in the competition (Lockheed-Martin and Sikorsky) filed protests, and earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed with one of their claims, namely that lifecycle costs for the three helicopters should be clarified before a contract is finalized.

Now, the Air Force has announced plans to release a a draft Request for Proposal amendment to the CSAR-X contenders next month. That will allow the three defense firms to submit new data, quantifying the potential savings offered by their helicopters. The Air Force will use that data to make a final decision on the CSAR-X, expected later this summer. In predictable fashion, all three companies have hailed the Air Force decision, stating that the revised process will give them a chance to make their case, and win the contract.

However, one important individual has yet to weigh in on the CSAR-X bidding process, and his position could further delay the program. Arizona Senator (and presidential hopeful) John McCain is no fan of the Air Force acquisition process. He led the crusade against the service’s plans to lease tanker aircraft from Boeing, exposing a scandal that eventually sent the Air Force’s top civilian acquisition official to prison.

Needless to say, Boeing isn’t John McCain’s favorite defense contractor and he’ll likely scrutinize the CSAR-X program if the HH-47 emerges as the favorite. Moreover, as an Annapolis graduate, a retired Navy officer and the son (and grandson) of former admirals, Mr. McCain has long protected the interests of the naval service in battles on Capitol Hill. When Don Rumsfeld proposed nominating Air Force General “Speedy” Martin to lead U.S. Pacific Command (a traditional Navy billet), McCain torpedoed the selection, citing Martin’s tertiary involvement in the Boeing tanker deal.

Senator McCain recently requested information on the CSAR-X selection process, and as military analyst Loren Thompson told the Dow-Jones Newswire, the undertone is clear: “McCain showed once before that he could stop a major Air Force program in its tracks. I think the undertone here is he’ll do it again if he detects unfairness.”

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with McCain exercising his oversight authority. But, as demonstrated in the Speedy Martin affair, the Arizona Senator isn’t above using an acquisition issue to help out his old service. With Martin out of the way, the PACOM post remained in Navy hands, and it will likely remain that way. Which makes us wonder: does John McCain have his own favorite in the CSAR-X contest? A few months ago, the Navy selected Lockheed-Martin’s US101 to be the next Presidential helicopter. If the Air Force also selected that platform for CSAR-X, it would further decrease units costs, increase the availability of spare parts, and provide some potential savings for Mr. McCain’s old outfit. Senator McCain has spoken at length about the need for “fairness” in the acquisition process. In the same spirit, he should reveal whether he has a dog in this fight as well.