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.
"I 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 helicopter."
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.