Obama review threatens presidential helicopter deal

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Remarks by President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain yesterday appeared to doom the fate of the US Navy Lockheed Martin VH-71 presidential helicopter.

As the former presidential rivals shared a stage at the White House's fiscal responsibility summit, McCain seized the opportunity to attack the at least 65% cost overrun to develop Obama's new executive helicopter fleet.

"Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One," McCain told Obama. "I don't think there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money."

The US Air Force bought both VC-25s - modified 747s - from Boeing in 1990 for about $400 million each. The cost of each VH-71 (artist's impression below), including development funding, has climbed to about the same level.

 
© Lockheed Martin

Obama replied that he has spoken with defence secretary Robert Gates about a "thorough review of the helicopter situation", and also mocked the apparent need to replace the Sikorsky VH-3D (below) and VH-60 fleet with a new presidential helicopter.

 
© Ron Sachs/Rex Features

"The helicopter I have seems perfectly adequate to me," Obama said. "Of course, I've never had a helicopter before. Maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it."

 
© Ron Sachs/Rex Features

The USN awarded the Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland team a $6 billion contract in 2005 to adapt the latter's AW101 into a presidential helicopter. But programme costs quickly escalated after the USN realised that its requirements greatly exceeded the aircraft's design limits, and modifications were ordered for an improved Increment 2 version that include new engines, rotor blades, gear box, drive train and nose cone.

Such changes dramatically increased the cost of the aircraft. Last March, John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, reported a 65% cost increase that raised the programme's overall price tag to about $11 billion.

Early this month, the Pentagon notified Congress that the VH-71 programme had breached a 50% cost overrun limit mandated under the Nunn-McCurdy law, which automatically requires the military to consider terminating a contract. The USN had hoped to complete the review in the first quarter of this year and move on with the programme. But the remarks by Obama and McCain, and rising political pressure on the use of executive aircraft, could force the Pentagon to abandon the project.

"I think [the VH-71] is an example of the procurement process gone amuck," Obama said. "And we're going to have to fix it."