The U.S. Navy has temporarily halted “Increment 2” development of the VH-71 Marine One presidential helicopter replacement program and is reevaluating available options. However, Pentagon officials say the current contract remains in effect.
The action followed criticism of the program’s technical assumptions and development timetable by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), as well as media revelations of a $6.2 billion overall program price tag and $270 million unit cost.
In a statement issued last month, the Navy said, “The VH-71 program is currently restructuring the Increment 2 program. Cost and schedule impacts will not be fully known until our assessment is complete, thoroughly vetted and approved by Department of Defense leadership. Any information regarding cost and schedule is pre-decisional in nature. Once we have an approved schedule, it will continue to be event-driven and one that places the president in a safe and fully tested platform.”
Pentagon sources confirmed that the Navy had issued a 90-day “temporary stop-work order” on the development of a second block of AW101 variant helicopters, scheduled to join the U.S. presidential fleet in 2013, after Congress chopped $500 million from the program’s Fiscal Year 2008 budget.
A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman confirmed that the Navy had issued the order in November as a result of anticipated program restructuring. “We knew this was coming,” she said. Some close to the program said they believe the Navy’s temporary work suspension (expected to last at least 90 days) on Increment 2 is related to technical and budgetary issues.
The Department of Defense is currently reassessing the program and perhaps seeking alternatives that could include the Sikorsky S-92 or remanufacturing the current fleet, but either of those options is still viewed as unlikely, according to officials close to the program. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. John Schofield called talk of a replacement airframe “highly speculative.” Spokespeople for Sikorsky declined to comment on the Pentagon’s action and would not confirm if the company had been contacted anew with respect to an AW101 alternative.
The Sikorsky S-92 is already used by heads of state in South Korea, Kuwait, Turkey and Turkmenistan, and has been ordered for similar duty in Bahrain, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The FAA has approved the helicopter for installation of various protective countermeasures, and it could easily be adapted to the Marine One role, according to those close to the program.
Last month Defense Department under-secretary John Young acknowledged, “The program has encountered challenges in seeking to meet all the requirements within the budget. While the requirements have not changed, the detailed work on helicopter development and integration has identified technical challenges in meeting the requirements within the planned budget and schedule. In December, as a result of these technical challenges, the Defense Department issued a stop-work order for the Increment 2 design.”
The program to replace the fleet of Sikorsky 3H-D and H-60 “Whitehawks”–some of which date back to the Ford Administration–used by the president and other top government officials gained new urgency and political traction after 9/11, when it became clear that the aging fleet required extensive maintenance and had limited upgrade capabilities in terms of communications modernization and anti-threat hardening.
After a spirited and politically charged competition, a consortium of Lockheed Martin, AgustaWestland and Bell won the 32-ship VH-71 contract in 2005 using the European-made, three-engine AW101 airframe rather than one produced by a U.S.-based manufacturer. The Lockheed team platform beat a competing bid from Sikorsky based on its twin-engine S-92. Sikorsky has provided presidential helicopters since 1957, and the award of the contract to a team using a foreign-made airframe was controversial, with Sikorsky’s home Connecticut Congressional delegation leading the criticism. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) called the award “an affront to the American worker.”
Controversial Contract Award
Some Washington insiders alleged that the contract award was a Bush Administration reward to the government of then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for its support of the Iraq War, a charge that the Pentagon and the White House publicly denied. Blair and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi personally lobbied President Bush for the contract.
The controversy was renewed after a 2007 GAO report that was critical of the program’s massive cost overruns and high degree of technical risk. The GAO estimated the unit cost of the VH-71 at $270 million, more than the cost of a new jumbo jet, making it one of the most, if not the most, expensive helicopters in history.
Under the program, four VH-71s would be used in flight test and five production aircraft would join the presidential fleet in 2009 (Increment 1) with a second block of 23 more sophisticated and capable helicopters replacing those and the Sikorsky VH-3Ds and N-60 Whitehawks currently in the Marine One fleet beginning in 2013 (Increment 2).
According to the GAO, Increment 1 of the program is already $341 million over budget and the Navy’s requirements for Increment 2 aircraft–in the form of armor, countermeasures and electronics–add so much weight as to require yet untested and more powerful engines, heftier gearboxes and drivetrains, a longer tailboom, and larger main and tail rotor systems. These changes could add another $1 billion in costs and amount to a completely new aircraft development program.
While Increment 2 of the program is on hold, work continues on Increment 1 aircraft. A Navy spokeswoman said that flight testing of two of the four VH-71 flight test vehicles along with a third leased AW101 is progressing at U.S. Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. The other two test vehicles, along with the first five production aircraft, are scheduled to be delivered to the Navy before year-end. The stop-work order on Increment 2 of the program will not impact the Increment 1 schedule, the spokeswoman said.