By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The prospects for building a new fleet of high-tech presidential helicopters darkened yesterday, after the new commander in chief called the costly Bush administration effort an example of military procurement "gone amok" and said he thinks the existing White House helicopter fleet "seems perfectly adequate."
President Obama's remarks at the opening of a meeting with lawmakers on fiscal responsibility did not rule out finishing the program, now expected to cost more than $11.2 billion, or nearly twice the original estimate. He joked that he has not had a helicopter before, so perhaps "I've been deprived and I -- I didn't know it."
But Obama's disclosure that he had asked Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to conduct a "thorough review of the helicopter situation" amounted to a shot across the bow of large defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, the helicopter's manufacturer. In recent years, contractors have experienced multiple cost overruns -- totaling $300 billion on the 95 largest military programs, according to the Government Accountability Office -- without incurring substantial penalty.
Billions of dollars have been spent to develop the VH-71 helicopter fleet, which is meant to replace the iconic Sikorsky Marine One helicopters the White House has used for a quarter-century. But technical problems -- the aircraft weighs too much and is to be outfitted with sophisticated electronic gear that has not yet been developed -- have repeatedly forced the program's restructuring, and in recent months, the Pentagon ordered key work halted to reassess its design and necessity.
Senior Pentagon officials, including outgoing procurement chief John J. Young Jr. and testing chief Charles E. McQueary, have frequently described the VH-71 as an example of how military systems should not be bought: The White House security office repeatedly added highly complex security requirements, and the Pentagon began building the helicopters without first settling on a design and testing the key components.
Costs have risen to the point where the price of each helicopter will exceed that of any of the much larger presidential Boeing 747 jets known as Air Force One.
That fact caused Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, to say at the meeting yesterday that he was unaware of "any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost the taxpayers an enormous amount of money."
McCain told Obama that he would "have to make some tough decisions about not only what we procure, but how we procure it." The president responded, "This is going to be one of our highest priorities."
Navy Lt. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the VH-71 program, said, "It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on the president's remarks." A Lockheed spokesman also declined to comment.