Program under review, LM halts Marine One development

 - February 8, 2008, 6:32 AM

Pentagon sources confirmed to AIN that Lockheed Martin has been ordered to stop work on the development of a second block of AW-101-variant helicopters scheduled to join the U.S. presidential fleet in 2015, while the Department of Defense reassesses the program and perhaps seeks alternatives that could include the Sikorsky S-92. When the President is aboard, these helicopters are designated “Marine One.”

Spokesmen for Sikorsky declined to comment on the Pentagon’s action to AIN, but a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman confirmed that the Navy had issued a 90-day “temporary stop work order” on the program in November as a result of anticipated program restructuring by the Navy. “We knew this was coming,” a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman told AIN. A Navy spokesman called talk of a replacement airframe “highly speculative.”

The Sikorsky S-92 is already used as a head-of-state transport in South Korea, Kuwait, Turkey and Turkmenistan. The FAA has approved the S-92 for installation of various protective countermeasures and the machine could easily be adapted to the presidential role, according to those close to the program.

The Navy said it is “currently restructuring” the VH-71 Increment 2 program. “Cost and schedule impacts will not be fully known until our assessment is complete, thoroughly vetted and approved by DoD 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.”

Sources close to the program believe the Navy’s action to suspend work temporarily on phase two of the program is the result of technical and budgetary issues.

Pentagon sources confirmed to AIN that although the program was stopped, the contract remains in force. The award of the $6.2 billion (and climbing) contract for 32 modified AW-101 helicopters, designated VH-71, for the presidential fleet to the Lockheed Martin, AgustaWestland and Bell consortium was politically controversial because of its use of the European AgustaWestland airframe. A March 2007 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that was critical of the program’s massive cost overruns and high degree of technical risk renewed that controversy. (See AIN, September 2007, page 138.) A unit cost of more than $270 million makes the VH-71 one of the most, if not the most, expensive helicopters in history.

Four VH-71s would be used in flight test and five production aircraft would join the presidential fleet in 2009 (phase one). A second block of 23 more sophisticated and capable heli- copters would replace those and the Sikorsky VH-3Ds and N-60 “Whitehawks” currently in the Marine One fleet beginning in 2015 (phase two).

According to the GAO, phase one of the program is already $341 million over budget and the Navy’s requirements–armor, countermeasures and electronics–for phase-two aircraft add so much weight as to require yet untested and more powerful engines, heftier gearboxes and drive trains, a longer tailboom and larger main and tail rotor systems, amounting to a new aircraft development program.

A Navy spokeswoman told AIN that flight testing of two of the four VH-71 flight test vehicles along with a third leased AW-101 was progressing at 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 the end of the year. The stop-work order on phase two of the program will not affect this schedule, she added.