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."
Vendrasco attributed the problems partly to an attempt to speed up the normal development process by three years. "There was just a slow start out of the gate," she said. "And schedule is money."
The White House has insisted the project go forward. "We took a look at what is the best thing to do for future presidents but also looking at it from a cost-benefit analysis," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "The consensus was future presidents need a new helicopter. The current ones need to be replaced."
Johndroe said President Bush has no personal stake in the project because the helicopters will not be ready until after he leaves office.
Presidents have had helicopters at their service since 1957, when Dwight D. Eisenhower bristled at how long it took to get from a New England vacation getaway to an airport during a crisis. Over the years, sightings of presidents boarding Marine One on the White House lawn have produced memorable moments, perhaps most famously Richard M. Nixon's two-armed, double-V departure after his resignation in 1974.
Many of the White House helicopters have been in service since that era. The current fleet includes 19 aircraft -- 11 Sikorsky VH-3D Sea Kings and eight VH-60N Black Hawks -- and the oldest have flown presidents for 33 years.
The squadron also serves the vice president, defense secretary, Navy secretary, visiting heads of state and other officials. So many helicopters are needed because the president typically travels with two or more when he flies, with the extras ferrying staff and Secret Service, serving as backups and playing decoy. When a president makes multiple stops, additional sets of helicopters must be airlifted to his next destinations.
On Friday, for instance, Bush went to New York for an economic speech. He climbed into Marine One on the South Lawn, and two other helicopters accompanied him on the 10-minute flight to Andrews Air Force Base, where he boarded Air Force One for the trip north. At John F. Kennedy International Airport, another pair of helicopters waited to fly him into Manhattan.
Although the Marines maintain the craft with painstaking care, they occasionally break down. In 2006, for example, Bush accepted the resignation of his press secretary, Scott McClellan, during an emotional moment on the South Lawn, and the two then strode to Marine One to fly off together. But the helicopter would not work, and they had to get off and take a car.
Then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. grew aggravated with the aging fleet's problems in 2002, and he launched the effort to develop a new model with a post-Sept. 11 upgrade. Although Lockheed Martin does not make helicopters, the Navy chose it over longtime contractor Sikorsky Aircraft because the company's European partner had a three-engine model that seemed a logical off-the-shelf base for a new presidential helicopter. But modifying the EH101 has proven so complicated that the company is essentially building a new helicopter.
The first five helicopters are due in 2010, a year behind schedule, although the White House made compromises on the requirements to cut costs and speed delivery. Twenty-three more-sophisticated versions are to follow, at which point the current fleet and the first five craft would be retired. But the most recent target date of 2015 for these additional choppers has slipped to an unknown date.
The problems with the second batch have prompted the Pentagon to issue a stop-work order until it determines what to do and Congress provides more money. The Pentagon conducted a review of the project and considered 35 alternatives, but "none of these options meet the full set of White House requirements," Young said.
Britain last year bought six standard EH101 helicopters for about $57 million each -- roughly one-seventh of what it will cost the United States to buy the same aircraft and retrofit it for the president. Critics say that sort of mission creep has become too common. "If it was going to cost $11 billion in the first place, somebody should have said so," said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), whose district includes Sikorsky's headquarters, said the drastic changes in the helicopter make it a whole new aircraft, so it should be rebid. After all the twists of this project, she said, "We ought to start over."