The Pentagon awarded a $1.24 billion contract to helicopter maker Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. on Wednesday to begin building the next fleet of White House helicopters, five years after a similar effort turned into such a high-profile example of cost overruns and government mismanagement that it was publicly terminated by then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates. Budget hawks shouldn't pop open the champagne just yet, however. The new contract only covers the purchase of six test helicopters, two flight simulators, and other associated equipment, meaning the government will still have to spend many billions more if the White House is to get the 21 helicopters it wants.
The deal was not unexpected, and the program will continue facing scrutiny going forward. Sikorsky - which is teaming with fellow defense contractor heavyweight Lockheed Martin on the project - was the only bidder for the lucrative contract, raising questions among some defense analysts whether the lack of competition could drive costs up. The Pentagon also granted the Navy a waiver that allows bidders to avoid "competitive prototyping," in which they are required to develop prototypes before manufacturing and engineering is approved.
Still, the Navy official overseeing the helicopter program said Wednesday that the service had learned its lessons and was focusing on controlling costs as well as performance this time around. "We are committed to a cost-effective acquisition strategy and prudent use of existing technology," Capt. Dean Peters, who oversees the Navy's Presidential Helicopters Program Office, said in a statement
Sikorsky officials said they plan to deliver all 21 operational helicopters by 2023. The new aircraft will be based on Sikorsky's S-92 executive model, which the company bills as "the ultimate VIP transportation." It has been used by all over the world by heads of state and a variety of private companies, the company said. It released graphical renderings of the new helicopter, which looked similar to existing models in its distinctive green paint job in front of the White House and flying over the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington. The helicopter flies under the iconic "Marine One" name when the president is on board.
Of the six presidential helicopters under contract, two will be designated as "engineering development models," meaning the Navy will test their performance and communications systems. Those helicopters will be delivered to the military by 2018, Sikorsky said. The other four helicopters are "system demonstration test articles," meaning they will perform a variety of operational tests and then become part of the fleet. Sikorsky also will deliver two flight simulators to the Navy by 2018. The Pentagon is expected to place orders for the first of three shipments of additional helicopters in 2019.
The presidential helicopter program has been watched closely because of its painful and embarrassing history. In 2009, the Pentagon killed the last attempt to buy new aircraft after spending some $3.2 billion and failing to get a single usable helicopter. The projected cost of the overall program doubled to $13 billion, eventually drawing sharp criticism on Capitol Hill and from Obama himself not long after he took office. In one famous February 2009 exchange at the White House, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pointedly noted how expensive the helicopter had become, and Obama agreed - a kiss of death if ever there was one.
"The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me," Obama said at the time. "Of course, I've never had a helicopter before. Maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. But I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we're going to have to fix it."
Later that year, the Pentagon killed the program. The new version has been scaled back dramatically, and will use existing equipment and technology rather than trying to develop new ones from scratch. The Navy has insisted that this time, the program will be better.
"The last program was born in a completely different environment and was to some extent rushed into," Peters told the Washington Post in April. "With this program, we've done the due diligence to make sure the requirements are achievable and affordable."
Artist renderings courtesy Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.