More than $100M committed to defunct presidential helicopter

House and Senate defense negotiators on Friday agreed to include more than $100 million to continue work on the now defunct VH-71 presidential helicopter, according to one defense appropriator.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), in whose district Lockheed Martin assembles the VH-71, said that he secured more than $100 million in the negotiated 2010 Pentagon spending bill to continue some work on the program. The funds would technically allow the work force in Owego, N.Y., to continue outfitting the helicopters with mission systems. The actual helicopters are made by the Italian-British venture, AgustaWestland.

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“Although I was not able to achieve my complete objective, which was to fully continue all aspects of Lockheed Martin's Increment 1 presidential helicopter, this funding will save about 250 jobs in Owego that would have been lost without it," said Hinchey in a statement. "The funding included in the conference agreement will help ensure that $1 billion already spent to develop the necessary mission systems technology for the next presidential helicopter does not go to waste.”
 
The agreement ensures that the VH-71 remains a viable contender to replace the current fleet of presidential helicopters as the Obama administration considers new options, he added.
 
President Barack Obama, during a summit in February, said that the VH-71 helicopter was an “example of the procurement process gone amok.”
 
“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, I’ve never had a helicopter before — maybe I’ve been deprived and I didn’t know it,” the president joked at the time.
 
By mid-May the Pentagon had formally canceled the program.
 
The helicopter program has 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.
 
Lockheed Martin announced it would lay off 600 employees as a result of the cancellation of the helicopter program.
 
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.

Now, the agreed-on funds for VH-71 are close to $130 million. However, part of that money would go toward the termination costs of the VH-71.

The Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Ashton Carter, said that he hoped to start another presidential helicopter program to replace the decades-old presidential helicopter fleet next spring, “around a reasonable set of requirements and a new acquisition strategy.”

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 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.