Correction to This Article
Previous version referred incorrectly to the helicopter that carried Richard M. Nixon from the South Lawn of the White House after he resigned the presidency in 1974. It was piloted by an Army crew and therefore was designated Army One, not Marine One.

Cost Nearly Doubles For Marine One Fleet

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

A year after Sept. 11, 2001, the White House set out to build a fleet of state-of-the-art Marine One helicopters for the al-Qaeda age that would be safer, more powerful and more reliable than the iconic white-topped aircraft that have landed on the South Lawn for decades.

But the al-Qaeda age has met the military acquisition process. Six years later, the cost of the new helicopters has nearly doubled, production has fallen behind schedule, and the bulk of the program has been put on hold while the government tries to figure out how to salvage it.

The Pentagon confirmed this month that the cost of the fleet of 28 new super-sophisticated helicopters has jumped from $6.1 billion when the contract was signed in 2005 to $11.2 billion today. Outfitted with cutting-edge communications equipment, antimissile defenses and hardened hulls, each of the VH-71 helicopters, to be dubbed Marine One whenever the president is onboard, will cost $400 million -- more than the most recent Boeing 747 jetliner outfitted to serve as Air Force One when it was delivered in 1990, even when adjusted for inflation.

The problems have generated consternation in the White House, Congress and Pentagon as officials attempt to grapple with yet another military hardware purchase that has expanded beyond initial parameters. In this case, though, they face the singular challenge of ensuring that the president is safe from all sorts of theoretical dangers and capable of running the country from midair during a crisis.

"You don't think of it in terms of what's the cost of the individual helicopter," said Jacques S. Gansler, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, who has been asked to review the project for the Defense Science Board. "You think of it as, what do we need to do to protect the president?"

As a result, a vehicle that was supposed to be a modified version of an existing helicopter "grows into an entirely different thing," he said.

The specifications of the new craft remain largely secret, but some details have leaked into trade publications or have been disclosed in congressional briefings. The 64-foot-long helicopters must carry 14 passengers and thousands of pounds of additional equipment while being able to fly farther without refueling than existing Marine One choppers can. They must be able to jam seeking devices, fend off incoming missiles and resist some of the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear blast.

They also must have videoconferencing and encrypted communications gear to allow the president to instantly reach advisers, military officers and foreign leaders. Although the president typically spends only short periods of time aboard the White House helicopters, at times the president can be onboard for longer distances. In a crisis, the White House says, minutes can make a difference, so a president should have the full capacity to act no matter where he or she is. In theory, a commander in chief should even be able to order a nuclear strike from the helicopter.

Why the cost has risen so much since the contract was signed with a team led by Lockheed Martin remains in dispute. The company declined to comment but has complained to supporters that the Navy added 1,900 more requirements to the helicopters. The Navy says no extra requirements were added after the contract.

"It's not the truth," said Stephanie Vendrasco, a spokeswoman for the Navy program. "And we can't figure out where that number comes from. It's a myth, and it's becoming a legend."

But she and other officials said no one completely grasped the demands for the helicopter at first.

"The Navy and industry team did not clearly realize the full implications of the White House requirements," John J. Young Jr., the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, said in a written response to questions. To meet those requirements and retrofit a commercial aircraft to Navy standards, he said, "the Navy and industry teams are having to complete substantial redesign" of the helicopter. He added that "this redesign work is driving significant cost growth into the program."


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