Defense bill gives VH-71 presidential helo a toehold

 - December 28, 2009, 11:06 AM

Limited funding for the Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland VH-71 presidential helicopter, which is based on the three-engine AgustaWestland AW101, has made it into the final FY2010 U.S. defense appropriations bill (H.R. 3326), reviving the machine’s chances of one day flying the President. At the direction of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Pentagon terminated the program on May 15 last year. Since then, proponents of the program, publicly led by Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), have lobbied to have funds to continue the VH-71 program included in the appropriations bill. The FY2009 defense appropriations ended on September 30, after which Congress passed a resolution to keep funds temporarily flowing to the Department of Defense.

At press time, the Senate had neither approved the bill nor sent it to President Obama. Last year, the President said he would consider vetoing the defense appropriations bill if it contained funding to continue the VH-71, which had been plagued by delays and cost overruns ($3.3 billion spent to date). But this latest version of the bill, which came out of the joint House and Senate conference committee on December 15 and was quickly approved by the House, includes a relatively small sum: $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, independent defense-industry observers speculated that the President would sign it.

While the $100 million is 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. It is unclear if the $55.24 million in termination costs that the Navy owes Lockheed Martin for canceling the program in May has 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 (in whatever form), the Navy will likely provide more details about 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.”