Op-Ed: How to Cut the Cost of the President's New Helicopter
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued March 4, 2009)

(© Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
There's a simple way of eliminating all of the recently reported cost increase in the presidential helicopter replacement program: kill the more advanced version of the new copter and stick with the initial design.

Doing that would give President Obama a much safer, more capable helicopter than he has today, while accelerating the rate at which the whole presidential fleet is converted to modern rotorcraft. In addition, terminating the high-cost version would reduce the price-tag for the program back to its originally projected baseline of $6.8 billion.

To understand why this is the only reasonable path open to the government, you have to understand the drawbacks of the other options available to the White House. One possibility would be to stick with the current plan, which envisions taking delivery of five "Increment One" helicopters and then proceeding to buy an all-new fleet of 23 "Increment Two" helicopters with many additional features. Increment Two copters would be better than the initial design, but their performance specifications are so demanding that no helicopter in the world can currently meet them, so the Increment One airframe would have to be redesigned. God knows how much that might eventually cost -- or how much time it would take to integrate and test the final product.

The other option available to the White House is to simply cancel the replacement program and stick with the existing fleet. That option was dangerous even before diagrams of the electronic system for one of the existing presidential helicopters turned up on an Iranian web-site. According to a story by Reuters reporter Andrea Shalal-Esa, the diagrams were accidentally made accessible to outsiders by someone using file-sharing software. It isn't a big deal -- the information was unclassified -- but it adds to the litany of reasons for not sticking with the existing presidential copters.

The current fleet of VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters has been operating for a long time, with the larger VH-3D that usually carries the President tracing its origins back to the 1950s. The VH-3Ds in the White House fleet today have logged 30 years of operations, meaning they have reached the point in their design life when unexpected problems begin to occur. But the main impetus for replacing them quickly came from the 9-11 attacks, because once the possibility of terrorist attacks became real the deficiencies of the present fleet were all too obvious.

Most of the details are secret, but it appears the current fleet lacks the range, payload, protections and communications necessary so the President can survive and carry out his responsibilities when the government is under attack.

One reason why the cost of the new helicopters got out of control was that the White House's urgency about fielding a replacement clashed with the Navy's standards for developing rotorcraft.

But the larger issue was that the Secret Service and other organizations supporting the President loaded up the final version of the copter with too much stuff. An exhaustive government study has concluded that the helicopter chosen for the job is the only one that can carry all the necessary payload to desired ranges while still landing safely in confined spaces like the White House lawn.

Since the contractor has already built nine new helicopters (four for testing, five for presidential use) that are far better than those carrying the President today, the safest, cheapest thing to do would be to jettison all the add-ons and just stick with the low-cost version of the new helicopter for the whole fleet.

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