Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Credit Where It's Due

It's no secret that we often disagree with President Obama. Many of his policies strike us as naive and ill-informed, even dangerous.

But the Commander-in-Chief also deserves credit when he's right. And Mr. Obama is correct in questioning the planned replacement for the presidential helicopter fleet. As the "Marine One" replacement program becomes a lightning rod for gold-plated Pentagon spending, President Obama suggested that the current squadron of VIP helicopters is perfectly fine. He's also asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to put the program on hold.

Mr. Obama's comments may be the death knell for staggeringly expensive replacement effort, which has almost doubled in price in only seven years. Originally pegged at $6 billion (for 28 helicopters), the program's cost is now at $11.6 billion--and rising.

The project began on an unexpected note. When the contract was awarded back in 2005, the Pentagon by-passed firms (Sikorsky, Boeing) that have long supplied military helicopters in favor of Lockheed-Martin, which offered a version of the European-designed US-101. It also represented the firm's first foray into a major helicopter competition.

Over the years that followed, there were battles about how the chopper would be outfitted. Dubbed the VH-71, the new helicopter was supposed to withstand potential threats (including advanced MANPADS) while offering improved range and communications capabilities.

While that sounds reasonable for a presidential helicopter, some of the requirements were extravagant. Someone decided the new aircraft needed a secure video teleconference capability, akin to what the commander-in-chief has in the White House, and aboard Air Force One. Never mind that Marine One's primary crisis role is getting the president to a secure ground site, or a rendez-vous with a NAOC aircraft. The teleconference gear became just addition to the VH-71, one of 1,900 changes made to the original specifications.

As the price tag soared, the bean counters made a stunning discovery. At $400 million a copy, the new presidential helicopter would be more expensive than the Boeing 747s that serve as Air Force One--even when their cost is adjusted for inflation.

That should have been the last straw for the VH-71, but don't assume the program is facing imminent cancellation. The helicopter is well into its testing program and the first models are scheduled to join Marine Helicopter Squadron One next year. That means that DoD has already sunk billions into the project, money that would be lost if the project is scrapped.

The VH-71 also has powerful friends in Congress, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer. As you might have guessed, much of the work on the new helicopters is being done in his state.

But it may not be enough. With expected cuts in defense spending, the demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Mr. Obama's comments about the presidential helicopter program, the VH-71 may be heading for cancellation.

No one doubts that the current generation of presidential choppers is getting long in the tooth. And, the leader of the free world deserves a helicopter that is more survivable against current and projected threats. But there has to be a more cost effective way to meet those requirements.
Clearly, the VH-71 ain't it. Terminate the program and get back to the drawing board. Better luck next time.

ADDENDUM: If the Obama Administration needs another reason to kill the VH-71, here it is: the same airframe being used for the Marine One program is also a contender for the Air Force's next-generation combat search and rescue helicopter (CSAR-X). Some analysts believe the US-101 is a poor candidate for that demanding mission. Last March, a contributor to this blog reminded us that Canada was forced to ground its version of the chopper due to persistent cracks in the tail rotor. Maintenance costs for the Canadian helicopter are also running 200% higher than originally forecast.

1 comment:

Mr. Grey Ghost said...

I didn't hear about this, great heads up. BO's definitely doing the right thing here.