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The Gold-Plated Helicopter

Dec 2, 2017
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The VH-71 helicopter. When outfitted for Presidential transport duties, each chopper will cost an estimated $400 million, making them more expensive than Air Force One (Lockheed-Martin photo via The Danger Room).

Today’s Washington Post has a disturbing item on the program to build a new fleet of Presidential helicopters. Just how expensive can a squadron of helicopters be? Hang onto your wallets and keep reading.

But first, a bit of history. After 9-11, it was determined that the Commander-in-Chief needed a state-of-the-art chopper, something that could withstand a potential terrorist attack (think advanced MANPADS), while improved range and communications capabilities.

Back in 2002, then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card launched an effort to acquire new aircraft for Marine Helicopter Squadron One, the unit that operates and maintains the presidential choppers. A contract for 28 new helicopters was finally signed in 2005, with an estimated price tag of $28 billion.

The winner of the competition was something of a surprise. While U.S. firms like Sikorsky and McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) had long supplied VIP helicopters for the Defense Department, the contract for the next-generation Marine One was awarded to Lockheed-Martin, which offered an upgraded version of the European EH101. While the company is one of the world’s largest defense contractors, it has no prior experience in the helicopter business.

Undaunted, the Navy and Lockheed-Martin pressed on. You can probably guess what happened next. Since 2005, the projected price for the 28 helicopters has risen steadily. According to the Post, the estimated cost is now $11.6 billion.

That’s $400 million per helicopter. Or, put another way, each new chopper will cost more than the last Boeing 747 outfitted to serve as Air Force One—even when the price of that jet is adjusted for inflation.

For that much money, the President will be getting a veritable airborne Cadillac, offering plush accommodations, protection from a wide array of threats, and allowing him (or her) to manage a crisis from mid-air.

And that’s part of the problem. As a former senior defense official told the Post:

“You don’t think of it in terms of what’s the cost of the individual helicopter,” said Jacques S. Gansler, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, who has been asked to review the project for the Defense Science Board. “You think of it as, what do we need to do to protect the president?”

As a result, a vehicle that was supposed to be a modified version of an existing helicopter “grows into an entirely different thing,” he said.

The specifications of the new craft remain largely secret, but some details have leaked into trade publications or have been disclosed in congressional briefings. The 64-foot-long helicopters must carry 14 passengers and thousands of pounds of additional equipment while being able to fly farther without refueling than existing Marine One choppers can. They must be able to jam seeking devices, fend off incoming missiles and resist some of the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear blast.

They also must have videoconferencing and encrypted communications gear to allow the president to instantly reach advisers, military officers and foreign leaders. Although the president typically spends only short periods of time aboard the White House helicopters, at times the president can be onboard for longer distances. In a crisis, the White House says, minutes can make a difference, so a president should have the full capacity to act no matter where he or she is. In theory, a commander in chief should even be able to order a nuclear strike from the helicopter.
Someone once observed that “perfection is the enemy of good enough,” and that seems to be the case with the next-generation chopper, dubbed the VH-71. Fact is, the President is rarely aboard the helicopter for more than a few minutes and in a national crisis—the kind that would require him to relocate for survival—the chopper’s function is simple: get the Commander-in-Chief to a secure location, or the airport where a NAOC aircraft is waiting. The notion that a president (or his/her designated successor) would manage a crisis from the helicopter, for a prolonged period, is doubtful at best.

Procuring a squadron of helicopters that can handle the VIP transportation mission—with advanced self-protection capabilities—shouldn’t cost the taxpayers $11 billion. At least one member of Congress (with Sikorsky’s headquarters in her district) is pushing to scrap the EH101, and open the program for re-bidding. We can only guess how much more that would cost, in terms of wasted money and delays in acquiring new helicopters.

We also wonder what impact (if any) the Marine One project will have on the Air Force’s CSAR-X competition. The service is currently weighing proposals for its next-generation search-and-rescue helicopter. One of the contenders is a special ops version of the European chopper (dubbed the US101), and offered by none other than Lockheed-Martin.

You don’t have to be an acquisitions expert to imagine the latest sales pitch going on inside the Pentagon. Select the US101 for the Air Force, the argument goes, and get a lower unit cost for the Marine One program, since both helicopters use the same airframe.

And, the Lockheed-Martin program has some key supporters in Congress, including New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. As you might have guessed, the new Marine One will be assembled at a plant in Oswego, the same facility that would build CSAR helicopters for the Air Force—if Lockheed-Martin wins that contract, too.

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