AgustaWestland is teaming with Northrop Grumman on the latest Marine One competition.
Since 2002 the Navy has spent $3.4 billion researching the alternatives for a new fleet of helicopters for Marine Squadron HMX-1 to transport the President and other government VIPs. Now, as it starts the process anew (VXX), AgustaWestland announced that it will again enter the fray with its medium lift three-engine AW101, this time partnered with Northrop Grumman.
AgustaWestland and Northrop Grumman will also partner in promoting the AW101 for the anticipated Air Force Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) requirement. AgustaWestland had partnered with Lockheed Martin on the original competition, designated VH-71, scrapped in June 2009 after delays and massive cost overruns drove the price to $400 million apiece. Following that cancellation, AgustaWestland signed a licensing rights agreement on the AW101 with Boeing in 2010 with an eye to future DOD competitions. That agreement has been terminated. Also in 2010, Lockheed Martin, AW’s original partner on the VH-71, announced that it had partnered with Sikorsky for the VXX competition using the Sikorsky S-92A twin.
Both the Navy and the Secret Service pushed hard for a new fleet of presidential mission helicopters following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which exposed anew the limitations of presidential support aircraft.
Incremental Approach Planned
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was highly critical of the VH-71 program, writing in February 2012, “The VH-71 program was started with a faulty business case, did not perform appropriate systems engineering analysis to gain knowledge at the right times, and failed to make necessary trade-offs between resources and requirements even after years of development. Furthermore, it did not seek to develop knowledge incrementally, but rather sought to develop the desired capability in a single step. Had the VH-71 program instead followed an approach similar to that now proposed for the VXX program, DOD might be closer today to fielding the improved presidential helicopters needed. This is a lesson not unique to this program and thus has application to other DOD programs.”
The GAO is more optimistic about prospects for VXX, noting, “To achieve a balance of resources and requirements and provide a new presidential helicopter in a timely manner, DOD’s additional guidance reflects an incremental approach to achieving the full capabilities desired for the VXX. First, the Navy is going to extend the service life of the existing helicopters and at the same time upgrade their capabilities by developing and incorporating mature technologies. Second, it would define open-systems architectures for the VXX aircraft to enable the insertion of those and other technologies in the future. Third, it would select an existing, available aircraft for the VXX program and then oversee the integration of the technologies matured and incorporated on the legacy helicopters into the VXX aircraft. Finally, in the future, new technologies would be developed and integrated onto the VXX aircraft as pre-planned, product improvements.”
For now it is not clear when a new helicopter will enter Presidential service. The GAO notes that the current fleet of 11 VH-3D and 8 VH-60N aircraft suffer from aging aircraft issues and increased weight brought on by mission creep and additional equipment, which have degraded these helicopters’ range and utility. The Navy noted that the airframes have limited upgrade potential due to the physical constraints of the aircraft such as structure, wiring, interior/exterior space and performance, as well as the need to keep them available for use, which restricts the amount of time they can be taken out of service for upgrades.
Nevertheless, the Navy is pursuing upgrades to the current fleet, including glass cockpits for the VH-60Ns, composite main rotor blades for the VH-3Ds and secure communications upgrades and a 4,000-hour service-life-extension program for both aircraft. The service life of the VH-3Ds would be extended to 18,000 hours and the VH-60Ns to 14,000 hours.
It will likely be some time before a new Presidential helicopter appears on the White House lawn. While the incremental trajectory of the VXX program holds the promise of better results, it is not a panacea. The GAO notes, “While DOD’s revised VXX [plans] may reflect a more knowledge-based acquisition approach, challenges will remain. Technologies will still need to be matured and then successfully integrated in the VXX aircraft. In the past, we found such integration can be significant. For example, in March 2007 we reported that in Fiscal Year 2004 DOD rebaselined the Joint Strike Fighter program extending its development by 18 months and adding resources to address problems discovered during systems integration and the preliminary design review. Furthermore, any new delays in fielding a replacement for the legacy helicopters may require additional efforts to further extend the service life and capabilities of the legacy VH-3D and VH- 60N helicopters.”