VH-71A to gain operational capability in 2010

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The VH-71A presidential helicopter will finally attain operational capability in 2010, after what programme manager Donald Gaddis admits has been "a painful start".

Known as the "Increment 1" helicopter, the VH-71A is the product of the first of two phases of development "Increment 2" will be designated the VH-71B. Two units of the VH-71A are in flight test at a US Navy test centre at Patuxent River, Maryland, with another two undergoing missionisation at a Lockheed Martin Systems Integration facility in Owega, New York. The aircraft has flown for 750h so far, and 98% of the mission systems software coding is complete.

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Manufactured by AgustaWestland, with Lockheed Martin as the prime contractor, the VH-71A was conceived in the wake of 9/11 and incorporates a new, highly interoperable presidential communications suite, as well as measures aimed at enhanced survivability. It will replace ageing Sikorsky VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters, the oldest of which will be 43 years and 31 years, respectively, when they retire.

In March, US undersecretary of defence for acquisition John Young revealed that costs for the Increment 1 had risen from $2.3 billion to $3.7 billion, and that the cost estimate for the Increment 2 version had jumped $3 billion to $7.5 billion.

Speaking at Farnborough, Gaddis acknowledged that expectations for Increment 1 had been set too high and an unrealistic schedule imposed, with the result that the original plan was "not executable". He also acknowledged that the Increment 2 costs had simply not been understood.

The decision to even proceed with the two-phase programme was only taken after a review of 35 alternatives and 11 independent reviews commissioned by Gaddis when he became programme head in September 2007. Gaddis previously served as F-18 programme manager.

He denied that changes in the White House Military Office's requirements had been at the root of the Increment 1 problems, adding that the White House had assisted in scrubbing 2,225kg (4,900 lb) from the helicopter's weight.

Pending the release of budgetary funds later this year, the first of 23 Increment 2 helicopters should enter service in 2017, six years after the entry-to-service envisaged in the initial plan. Range will be doubled to 550km (300nm) through changes to the engine, transmission system and rotor blades. Voice over internet protocol capability will also be introduced.

In a bid to mitigate risk and avoid a repeat of Increment 1's development problems, a "more realistic" event-drive test schedule - with lower levels of concurrency - has been drawn up for Increment 2, according to Gaddis.

"We are moving forward," he insisted, adding the claim that Increment 2 would deliver "one of the finest helicopters in the world".