Following program cancellation, military starting new presidential helicopter effort


Marine One carrying U.S. President Barack Obama takes off from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington November 17, 2012. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
December 2, 2012

As Congress and the president wrangle over impending budget cuts, the Pentagon is reviving its effort to purchase a new presidential helicopter fleet, a high-profile initiative that was canceled in 2009.

The program — known as the “VXX” aircraft or Marine One — is nearly certain to attract congressional and public attention, given the high visibility of the project and the ongoing debate over government spending.

“Any time you build something for the president, the stakes are higher,” said August Cole, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project. “That includes the politics, the requirements and the scrutiny.”

The previous effort, won by Lockheed Martin and run out of its Owego, N.Y., facility, was shut down by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates after its requirements and costs ballooned, making it a poster child for a broken military procurement process.

This time around, the Pentagon is promising to keep a tighter leash on the project.


President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama board Marine One at the landing zone on Lake Michigan en route to Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago, the day after the presidential election. Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“What it means is that the government probably won’t buy the ideal helicopter; they’ll buy the right trade-off of price with performance,”said Loren Thompson, an industry consultant.

Indeed, in a statement, the Navy said its “acquisition approach has changed” as it plans to buy about two dozen helicopters.

Rather than develop a new aircraft from scratch, the government hopes “to hold development to an absolute minimum on the VXX Program and focus the program effort on integration of mature subsystems on a mature platform,” according to a draft solicitation.

“While minor changes to the platform . . . are inevitable, change to major components such as drive train, rotors, engines and basic structure is highly discouraged.”

The program comes as the Pentagon has been promising to work within its budget and accept less advanced equipment — if it means a lower price tag and a greater likelihood that the manufacturer will stay within its estimated price and schedule.

Critical to the strategy is competition. In its statement, the Navy said it anticipates multiple bidders.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin has said it will team with Sikorsky to offer a version of Sikorsky’s S-92 helicopter.

“We’re being . . . supportive of the Navy’s approach in this environment,” said Samir Mehta, president of Sikorsky Military Systems. “The last thing that contractors want are long-term, exotic, uncapped risk development programs, especially given the history on this specific program.”

Falls Church-based Northrop Grumman will be partnering with AgustaWestland — owned by Italian firm Finmeccanica — on its bid. The two plan to propose a U.S.-built helicopter based on the AgustaWestland’s AW101 helicopter.

A “significant portion of the technical and programmatic risk . . . is behind us . . . We don’t have to develop a new helicopter; we have to modify it,” said Paul Meyer, vice president and general manager of advanced programs and technologies at Northrop’s aerospace unit. “That takes a lot of burden off of industry and the customer.”

In a statement, Boeing said it is “reviewing the requirements” against two of its aircraft and plans to attend an upcoming industry event.

To succeed this time around, the Pentagon must keep to a minimum what’s known as “mission creep” — or a growing laundry list of roles a technology must perform, said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group.

Cole said the Navy and Defense Department will also have to keep politics out of the program.

“The VXX program will be a really important test of how hard Congress will fight for defense jobs in lawmakers’ districts,” he said. “In this day and age, everyone is going to be fighting for the jobs.”

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