Gates warns he will ask Obama to veto Defense bill over helicopter, JSF

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he’ll recommend that President Barack Obama veto the 2010 defense spending bill if it includes funding for a new presidential helicopter.

Gates said he’ll also recommend that Obama veto the bill if appropriators include money for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, if those funds end up “seriously” disrupting the entire fighter jet program.

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He made the threats in a letter sent Wednesday to Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, and Bill Young (R-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member.

“The conference bill should not provide funding for weapons that are not working or are no longer needed,” Gates told the lawmakers.

The House included $485 million for the VH-71 presidential helicopter and $560 million for the Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine, which is built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. That engine is in direct competition with the primary engine built by Pratt & Whitney.

Both Pratt & Whitney and the GE-Rolls-Royce team have battled over the funding in a high-profile public-relations and lobbying campaign.

House appropriators also slashed $532 million from the Joint Strike Fighter procurement accounts (which funds 28 airplanes), but boosted development money by $430 million.

Senate appropriators did not include funds for the two projects, but Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, signaled funding for the second engine could be added in conference negotiations. Inouye supported funding for the second engine in the past.

On the presidential helicopter program, however, Inouye said that if the president does not want it, he did not want to “force it down his throat.”

Lockheed Martin and the Italian-British venture Agusta-Westland built the new presidential helicopter, the VH-71. The program is technically defunct and was canceled with much fanfare by the White House and Gates as a symbol of the administration’s responsible defense spending.

The helicopter program suffered from delays and ballooning costs; its price tag 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.

House defense appropriators are 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. Lockheed Martin announced it would lay off 600 employees as a result of the cancellation of the helicopter program.

In his letter to Murtha and Young, Gates argued that the five helicopters have no mission equipment and it would take “in excess of $2 billion to complete and operate” as a presidential helicopter.

“The Department and the White House are conducting a requirements analysis, and the outcome of this effort should not be pre-empted,” Gates wrote.

But Murtha indicated on Thursday that he believed any new helicopter project would end up costing even more than the former VH-71 project.

“It is going to cost more to start a new helicopter now,” Murtha told The Hill.  “We are still in negotiations [on the bill]; we are not there yet.”

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Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), a defense appropriator whose district includes Owego, N.Y., where Lockheed has laid off workers who worked on the helicopter contract, has argued that starting from scratch on the presidential helicopters would delay their fielding until 2024 and would cost $15 billion.

The Congressional Research Service earlier this year quoted internal Navy documents that estimated the new helicopter program would cost $15 billion to $22 billion when factoring in $4 billion already spent on the canceled program and $1.2 billion to extend the service life of the existing helicopters.

According to statements made by Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, the new presidential helicopter would not cost more than the canceled VH-71 and none of the options the Pentagon is looking into come close to the costs of the canceled program.