With little fanfare on Saturday, the Senate approved and President Obama subsequently signed the final FY2010 U.S. defense appropriations bill. The $636.3 billion bill includes limited funding for the Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland VH-71 presidential helicopter, which is based on the triple-engine AgustaWestland AW101.
The White House press secretary issued this brief statement: “On December 19, 2009, the President signed into law H.R. 3326, the ‘Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010,’ which provides FY 2010 appropriations for Department of Defense (DOD) military programs, including funding for Overseas Contingency Operations, and extends various expiring authorities and other non-defense FY 2010 appropriations.” No mention was made of the VH-71 presidential helicopter program.
It was on May 15, at the direction of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that the Pentagon terminated the VH-71, which had been plagued by delays and cost overruns ($3.3 billion spent to date), on May 15 last year. Since then, proponents of the program, publicly led by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), have lobbied to have funds to continue the VH-71 program included in the FY2010 defense appropriations bill. The FY2009 defense budget ended on September 30, after which Congress passed a resolution to temporarily keep funds flowing to the Department of Defense.
Last year, the President said he would consider vetoing the defense appropriations bill if it contained funding to continue the VH-71. But the final version of the bill, which came out of the joint House and Senate conference committee on December 15 and was approved by the House the next day, includes $130 million in funding for the program, “of which $100 million is for technology capture to recoup investments in research and development for the VH-71,” according to the House Committee on Appropriations. The other $30 million is earmarked for initial studies by the U.S. Navy on requirements for the next “Marine One,” designated the VHXX. Since this “technology capture” does not necessarily mean the VH-71 per se will continue and because there is so much else in the bill of critical importance to the country, defense-industry observers had speculated that the President would sign it.
While the $100 million is only a quarter of the $400 million approved by the House in its version of the defense appropriations bill, Hinchey apparently sees victory in his efforts. “The $100 million allocation will continue work at Lockheed Martin’s Owego branch and position the company to continue its involvement as the lead company involved in producing the next presidential helicopter fleet,” he said after the House approved the final version of the bill. It is unclear if the $55.24 million in termination costs that the Navy owes Lockheed Martin for canceling the program in May has already been or will have to be paid.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is reevaluating the requirements for the presidential helicopter, while waiting to find out if funds will be forthcoming and how much. A Navy spokesman told AIN that after the President approves the defense budget, the Navy will likely provide more details on the VHXX. Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, has stated publicly that he hopes to start another presidential helicopter program by this spring, based on “a reasonable set of requirements and a new acquisition strategy.”