Review seeks low-cost way to meet helicopter mission

Carter told reporters Monday that he hoped to start another program to replace the decades-old presidential helicopter fleet next spring, “around a reasonable set of requirements and a new acquisition strategy.”

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The Pentagon formally canceled the VH-71 presidential helicopter replacement program in mid-May, after it suffered from delays and ballooning costs. That decision followed remarks President Barack Obama made in February in which he called the VH-71 helicopter an “example of the procurement process gone amok.”

Carter said that in order to keep costs in check, the White House and Pentagon would prefer to use an existing helicopter platform instead of building a new helicopter from scratch.

“Obviously, for affordability’s sake one would like to be able to adapt an existing helicopter rather than start all over on a helicopter. Obviously that would always be our wish,” he said.

Pentagon and White House officials have reviewed 48 approaches to replacing the existing presidential helicopter fleet, so far whittling the list down to 17 possible alternatives, Carter said. Those approaches include using different helicopters to meet the mission, he said.

“The problem this project ran into last time was the piling-on of requirements to such a degree that no helicopter could satisfy all of them simultaneously,” Carter said. “We can’t let that happen this time. We need to shape the requirement so that the program becomes doable, and the White House is very intent on doing that.”

The price tag for the canceled VH-71, developed by Lockheed Martin and the Italian-U.K. venture AgustaWestland, rose from an estimated $6.5 billion to $13 billion in part because of growing technological requirements from the Marine One Squadron, which flies the presidential helicopters.

Now the Pentagon is working with the White House to “explain the trade-offs between different attributes” of a new presidential helicopter program, Carter said.

Variables include the range of the aircraft and the equipment and number of passengers it can carry, Carter said. The approach allows the White House “to make intelligent trade-offs with the requirements,” Carter said.

The Pentagon will periodically brief the White House on the possible solutions to make sure that officials there “are comfortable with a presidential helicopter for a lot less money than the canceled program would have cost had it continued,” Carter said.

Lawmakers like House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), a defense appropriator whose district houses the Lockheed plant that built the VH-71, have argued that starting another new helicopter program would be even more expensive and take longer than continuing a scaled-down version of the VH-71.

House defense appropriators have been looking for a way to tap into the $3.2 billion already spent on the program. For 2010 they allocated $485 million to make operational five VH-71 helicopters that have already been delivered.

The Senate did not include any funds to continue the work on the VH-71, but included $30 million for the development phase of a follow-on chopper.
The Obama administration has said that the replacement helicopters will be cheaper to operate and fly longer than the VH-71.

Funding for the VH-71 program is an issue of conference negotiations between House and Senate appropriators. Murtha told The Hill earlier this month that he received “clear” signals from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that President Barack Obama won’t sign the 2010 Pentagon spending bill if it contains money for the VH-71.

The Office of Management and Budget in July said it would advise the president to veto the bill over funding for the VH-71. Gates last month wrote to Murtha saying he would recommend a veto to the president if the final 2010 defense appropriations bill included funding for the new helicopter.

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