Replacing the U.S. Marine Corps' fleet
of decades-old presidential helicopters is once again a front burner issue for
the Corps, the service's top general said in little-noticed comments last week.
That's right, three years after the
infamous $13 billion Marine One replacement effort to buy 28 VH-71 helicopters was
canned by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Marines have made buying a
new VIP chopper a front burner issue, according to Marine Corps
Commandant, Gen. James Amos.
do know that it's now moved forward and it's a priority," said Amos, of the
Corps' VXX presidential helo replacement program during a luncheon at the National
Press Club in Washington on Aug. 28. "I can't tell you where it is with regards
to the budget, I just know that it's not on the back burner anymore it's
actually moved forward and we need to find a replacement for the president's
Then Defense Secretary Gates cancelled
the VH-71 program in February 2009 after it suffered from years of schedule
delays and billions of dollars in cost growth
stemming from significant modifications to the design of the European-made
Augusta Westland EH101 helicopter that the VH-71 was based on. The Navy signed
the original $6 billion VH-71 contract with the Lockheed Martin-Agusta Westland
team in 2005.
The cancellation left nine helicopters in
various states of prototype status or conversion to VIP military transports
sitting on a ramp Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., until they were sold
to Canada for pennies on the dollar last year. The new choppers will replace the Marines'
VH-3 Sea King, the type of chopper that has carried U.S. presidents for the
last 50 years along with 1980s-vintage VH-60 versions of the famous Black Hawk
helicopter. (The VH-3D's currently used to transport the President entered
service in the 1970s.)
The Navy's Air Systems Command -- responsible for buying Marine Corps
aircraft -- issued a Request for Information for a renewed presidential
helicopter program in 2010, prompting numerous defense contractors to move
forward with an offering. However, a Marine One replacement program has not
been formally kicked off since the Navy has been deciding on the best way to
replace the aging helicopters sometime in the next decade by purchasing
helicopters that are currently on the market. Amos' comments suggest that this
process is likely to move forward quickly instead of being used to keep a back
burner program out of sight and mind.
This comes as the Corps and the rest of the Defense Department is facing the
prospect of another $487 billion in budget cuts over the next decade should
Congress fail to reach a deal on how to reduce the U.S. national debt. Such
cuts would undoubtedly have an impact on Marine Corps aircraft buys, said Amos,
though he did not say it would hurt the VXX program, specifically.
A growing cadre of soldiers, spies, and top government
officials will soon be able to access and send some of the most important
intelligence information from newly developedsmart phones and tablets based on
commercial designs,as the National Security Agency and Defense
Information Systems Agency move to distribute some
of the devices before the end of the year.
For months, NSA's Fishbowlprogram has been testing a smart phone
running Google's Android operating system that is capable of handling both
regular data and highly sensitive information with a limited number of people
on a "closed network." Come December, the phone will be released to a broader
group of users across the government, who will be able to use it on an "open
network," according an NSA official.
At this point, those of you who work for Uncle Sam may be wondering,
"Will I get one?" Unfortunately, the NSA would say only that "some number of
customers" would get the early holiday present. Those lucky few will be able to
use the devices, which are aimed providing "protected classified intelligence
at various levels" within the Defense Department and the intelligence
community, Debora Plunkett, NSA's director of information assurance told
"We're also working on a tablet...and we hope that in the next six to nine
months we'll have a tablet that's out and in [limited] use," said Plunkett.
If all goes well, officials carrying the devices will be able to access the
most sensitive intelligence from almost anywhere in the world, anytime. Today,
spies and other government officials that need to access super secret
information on the go must carry special phones that cost thousands of dollars.
Right now, "if I go on a trip for work and I need to communicate back to my
office, I have the potential need to carry four different telephones with me,"
While the test device being used in the closed pilot program isn't one
you can walk into the Verizon store and buy, NSA and DISA (which handles the
Pentagon's communications hardware) are working to make this a reality. "The
goal is to eventually employ a completely [commercial] solution whenever and
wherever possible," said Plunkett. "Today, not all of the pieces are in place
for a 100 percent [commercial] solution, but we continue to work to support
The new phones and tablets being developed by NSA are modified versions
of commercial designs meant to work on commercial networks around the globe
using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and data apps and will take advantage
of cloud computing to keep highly sensitive information secure.
"We've moved beyond thinking that we're
going to be able to run exclusively on [hardware] devices that we [design] and that are purpose built for us," said Teri
Takai, the chief information officer for the DoD during a separate interview
with Killer Apps. "In general, we'd like to be able to move much more to commercial
devices and, if we need modification, just minimal modification to commercial
devices depending on the security level that's required."
Keeping data on the NSA's cloud servers rather than stored
on a phone means that NSA will not have to worry about individual devices being
compromised, according to Plunkett.
"Of course, the big baby on the table is the fact that having all of the
information in one place makes for a big target," Plunkett said. So, NSA
controls access to the cloud with data tags. Basically, people who are supposed
to have access to secret data are given a specific online ID tag -- or ticket
-- confirming they are who they claim to be and that they are allowed to touch
specific pieces of secret data. Those pieces of data are also tagged to prove
they aren't malware and they will generate a list of everyone who has ever
The phone will allow operatives to "gather large [intelligence] reports
and on the devices themselves, do some forms of manipulation in order to derive
key pieces of information from that. Think about everything you can do on your
personal device, we'd like to be able to do that in the national security
step in the DoD's evolution away from proprietary designs will hopefully allow
users to use the same iPhone or Android device to make unclassified phone calls
to pass secret information.
what we're working toward, the challenge for us is that may not be one device
for a while," said Takai. "It may be one device where you can call and pickup
your kids, another device where you do command and control and another device
where you do intelligence work; that's sort of the next frontier, to be able to
do it on a single device."
That's right, spies and soldiers
might someday be able to use the same device to coordinate picking their kids
up from school (in theory anyway) that they use to analyze drone videos or pass
"The customers that we deal with on our end want to be able to operate
on a mobile way, they want to be able to move around in their environment and
have real time access to the data they need to make decisions and that data
isn't just voice or text on a screen, it's pictures, its video," said Plunkett.
"We're heading to a place where our clients can actually do that, they can be
anywhere anytime and have real-time access to data that allows them to make
decisions that are critical to our national security."
The initial phones rolled out this year won't have all of these features,
but the devices will be continually upgraded to include more features and
improved security. At first, the devices will have voice, text, and some data
with capabilities expanding as the program grows.
While Plunkett declined to say the specific make of the
phone being tested, she did say that NSA's Mobile Innovation Center is testing
"every popular mobile operating system that's in use today."
"The smart phone that we're using for the pilot is an Android-based
smart phone, but we're not limiting ourselves to that; it just happens to be
the one we picked to run the test," said Plunkett. "We want to give options to
our customers, so if you're accustomed to using operating system x and you just
like it, we'd like to make that an option, provided we can get comfortable from
a security perspective."
So yeah, the president's iPad will soon be able to access secure
information online, if it isn't already. White House officials haven't returned
our requests for comment on the matter.