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Mon, Mar 17, 2008

Future Of Marine One Helo Program In Serious Doubt

Cost Has Skyrocketed To $11.2 Billion

Six years after the White House called for a more advanced fleet of presidential transport helicopters, the program tasked with that mission is facing increased questions, and an uncertain future.

The Washington Post reports Lockheed Martin and its British partner, AgustaWestland, is in jeopardy of losing the US101 helicopter contract, which called for delivery of 28 highly advanced VH-71 helicopters, to replace the current fleet of Sikorsky VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters. As ANN reported, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed the contract in 2005, on the strength of the three-engine design of the AgustaWestland EH101 on which the VH-71 is based.

Those were the days. Since then -- and this is going to sound familiar to anyone who follows military procurement issues, especially programs like the Joint Strike Fighter -- the cost of the entire VH-71 program has skyrocketed to $11.2 billion... and the Pentagon has yet to see its first helicopter.

Such delays and overages have become so common, in fact, there's even a term for it: "mission creep."

The VH-71 is intended to carry up to 14 people farther distances than existing presidential helicopters, without refueling, while carrying such advancements as antimissile defenses, armored fuselage reinforcements, and communications gear intended to keep the President in contact with top advisors during moments of crisis... such as the events of 9/11, which prompted the call for a more advanced transport.

Typically, the President only spends minutes onboard Marine One; the helicopters' prime duty is to ferry the president and other officials to and from Air Force One, the presidential 747.

And speaking of Air Force One... the per-unit cost of each VH-71 surpasses that of the specialized 747s in 1990, even when adjusted for inflation. But one shouldn't focus on the pricetag, says former undersecretary of defense for acquisition Jacques Gansler. "You don't think of it in terms of what's the cost of the individual helicopter," he told the Post. "You think of it as, what do we need to do to protect the president?"

But cost does factor into it. As ANN reported in January, there are rumors the entire project faces imminent cancellation, due to the cost and development overruns.

Lockheed declined to comment on the matter, but has told program supporters the US Navy added some 1,900 additional requirements since the contract was awarded -- hence the delays in completing the first VH-71s, and the added costs.

There's just one problem with that logic -- Lockheed's claims are news to the Navy. "It's not the truth," said Navy spokeswoman Stephanie Vendrasco. "And we can't figure out where that [1,900] number comes from. It's a myth, and it's becoming a legend."

Vendrasco admitted, however, that planners didn't understand all the demands on the VH-71 at first... a sentiment echoed by John J. Young Jr., the current undersecretary of defense for acquisition,

"The Navy and industry team did not clearly realize the full implications of the White House requirements," he told the Post, adding "the Navy and industry teams are having to complete substantial redesign" of the EH101, to meet the VH-71 mission. "This redesign work is driving significant cost growth into the program."

Vendrasco attributes the issues, in part, to an attempt to accelerate VH-71 development by three years. "There was just a slow start out of the gate," she said. "And schedule is money."

For now, the first three VH-71s are due for delivery in 2010, one year behind schedule, and the Navy had to accept compromises with those helicopters in order to meet that timeframe. The remaining 23, fully-equipped aircraft will come later... though the original target of 2015 for those deliveries has slipped to an unknown date, due to problems.

And that means retirement dates for the current Marine One fleet are also on hold. The oldest VH-3Ds have flown US presidents for 33 years.

FMI: www.teamus101.com/index.cfm

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