President Barack Obama's crack about his new helicopter last week may have charmed his audience at a fiscal responsibility conference, but may have sent a cold shiver down the spine of defence industry executives. (He joked he didn't realise he was "deprived" by his existing helicopter - the 34-year-old Sikorsky VH-3D - so much that he should buy a new one.)
For it was not enough for Obama to merely distance himself from the grossly over-budget Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland VH-71 programme. To the anxiety of defence contractors, Obama added a couple of phrases that sounded dangerously like a general policy statement on weapons acquisition. This is an administration that has revealed virtually nothing about its weapon spending plans, and key programmes are hanging on to survival by a string, so when Obama expressed his "concern" that "simply adding more and more does not necessarily mean better and better, or safer and more secure", his off-the-cuff remarks may have darkened the mood of the defence lobby. And Obama's speech the next day to Congress calling for reforming the defence budget "so we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use" wouldn't have helped.
© Lockheed Martin
The VH-71 could be a metaphor for Obama's defence acquisition doctrine. It represents much that is wrong in the procurement process: an ill-defined need, excessive requirements, spiralling costs and little existing capability lost by staying with the existing fleet. The same argument could apply to the KC-X, CSAR-X and virtually the entire tactical aircraft spending portfolio - and it is the defence industry that will soon feel deprived.