McCain threatens to fight funding for new presidential helicopter

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Pentagon leaders plan to buy 21 new presidential helicopters and expect to have the first aircraft in the field by 2020, according to Navy spokeswoman Capt. Cate Mueller.

She declined to comment on what the total anticipated price tag will be.

But controversy is already clouding the long-troubled program, due to the Navy's tightly tailored requirements for the aircraft.

A number of major players in the defense industry had expressed interest in building the aircraft, but all but one bidder — Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin — dropped out as Navy officials drafted their list of requirements.
 
Critics claim the process was deliberately crafted their list so that only the offering from the Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin team, known as the S-92, would fit the bill.

But Navy leaders argue its strict requirements guarantee program officials can keep costs and scheduling under control.

The service's main goal is to ensure "that requirements can be achieved within cost and schedule constraints," Mueller said Wednesday.

"We insist upon a cost-effective replacement program . . . which resulted in the shaping of requirements . . . to facilitate an acquisition strategy which relies on utilizing an in-production helicopter," Mueller said.

The White House has already agreed to field a dozen Marine Corps V-22 Ospreys to replace the CH-46 Sea Knights and CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters that make up the bulk of the White House's fleet.
 
The V-22s assigned to the White House will essentially be the same configuration as the ones flown by Marine Corps pilots in war zones like Afghanistan.
 
Unlike the V-22, Sikorsky's S-92 has never been part of the military's arsenal for either combat or non-combat missions.

But by seeking a "low-ball solution" for the VXX, the DOD and Navy have set the stage for a process that "sifts competitors out" before industry bids arrive at the Pentagon, according to one defense official.
 
Limiting Thursday's source selection decision down to one bidder, even before the bids are finalized, prevents multiple defense firms from competing for the Marine One contract. A bidding war would undoubtedly drive down the program's price tag, the official said.

"If you don't have competition … you do not get the best value for the [taxpayer] dollar," the official added.

McCain said the lack of competition on the Marine One program could be a deal breaker, and argued the Navy's decision reflects the service's "abysmal" record in getting a Marine One replacement in the skies.

"The last [attempt] ended up being more expensive than Air Force One," he said, referring to the president’s plane.

The Pentagon's last attempt to build a VXX prototype failed due to skyrocketing costs from a slew of design requirements added by DOD and White House officials.
 
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pulled the plug on the program in 2009 after congressional scrutiny over the numerous delays and cost increases reached a fever pitch on Capitol Hill.
 
At the time of Gates's cancellation, program engineers were only able to build nine aircraft after spending billions in taxpayer dollars.

Obama administration officials said they are focused on making sure the VXX does not go down the same cost growth and schedule delay cycle that has plagued other, high-profile DOD programs.
 
“President [Obama] himself has articulated ... doing this in a cost-effective way and in a way that continues to protect the safety of the future presidents who would fly on that aircraft, [and] those goals remain in place," deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday.

Navy leaders are willing to risk a lack of competition in the program, and the possible cost savings that it brings, in order to get the helicopter program off the ground, according to one senior defense analyst.

“Lack of competition shouldn't be a show-stopper for this program," Loren Thompson, a top defense analyst at the Lexington Institute who consults for defense firms, said Wednesday.

"There just aren't that many companies or airframes that can meet the demanding requirements for presidential transport," Thompson said.