The Saga of Marine One

Feb. 1, 2012

One would think that a helicopter project intended to provide safe, effective, and secure transport for the President of the United States and other top-level US officials would be a sure thing. One would be wrong.

Successfully completing any new military helicopter program has proved difficult in recent years, and not even the new Marine One presidential helicopter planned in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks has managed to emerge from its tumultuous acquisition process.

An AgustaWestland-built US101 medium lift helicopter. Lockheed Martin offered it as the presidential helicopter replacement. (Lockheed Martin photos)

After 10 years and at least $3.3 billion spent trying to produce the new VH-71 presidential support helicopter, the Navy has painfully shown this to be the case. Instead of a new fleet of VH-71s, the Navy and the nation have ended up with nothing but sizable termination expenses and a costly life extension requirement for existing VIP choppers.

Now the Navy’s new effort to procure a more reasonably priced presidential helicopter is being held up as the Pentagon prepares for smaller defense budgets projected over the next decade.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other senior government leaders will continue to fly in aged helicopters that officials determined were not adequate for the post-9/11 security environment.

Still, cancellation of the presidential support helicopter surprised many analysts.

The program was widely supported when it was initiated in the late 1990s and gained increased urgency after 9/11. But it became controversial when the contract went to a foreign producer and was later bogged down in complaints of runaway requirements, program delays, and soaring costs.

When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gutted several high-profile military acquisition programs in April 2009, critics said each of the 23 proposed presidential helicopters would have cost more than the converted 747 jumbo jets that serve as Air Force One.

Even then, the decision to terminate the program was the subject of heated debates between members of Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon. “The Administration’s proposed termination of the VH-71 program is one of the highest-profile program cancellations or reductions in the proposed FY2010 DOD budget and has emerged as a significant item of discussion in the debate on FY2010 defense funding,” wrote Ronald O’Rourke, Congressional Research Service naval programs analyst, in a June 9, 2009, report.

An Eisenhower-Era Practice

Presidents have used helicopters for relatively short movements by air since 1957 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower used a helo to reach a vacation spot.

After that, the mission of rotary wing support for the President was given to the Marine Corps and assigned to Marine Experimental Helicopter Squadron One, based at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. HMX-1 was already a decade old, created in 1947 as a helicopter developmental unit to support the Marines’ drive to perfect vertical assault in an effort to protect their cherished amphibious assault capabilities in the emerging era of nuclear weapons.

As with Air Force One, when the President is on board his Marine transport, the helicopter has the call sign Marine One.

From the beginning, Marine One has been a Sikorsky product. The current presidential support fleet consists of 11 VH-3D Sea Knights and eight VH-60N White Hawks, both made by Sikorsky.

The first VH-71 takes flight. President Obama said the snakebit VH-71 program was a good example of the procurement process gone awry. (Lockheed Martin photos)

The VH-3s, derived from the Navy’s SH-3 anti-submarine helicopters, began operations with HMX-1 in 1975, and the VH-60s, a modification of the widely used Black Hawk, were added in 1989.

A replacement program for the existing inventory first began in March 1998, when HMX-1 submitted a Fleet Operational Needs document for new presidential helicopters, which was approved in September 1999. The program, initially designated VXX, was managed by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) at Patuxent River, Md. NAVAIR develops, tests, and provides aircraft for marines and sailors.

NAVAIR estimated a new Marine One initial operational capability in the first quarter of Fiscal 2009. After the 9/11 attacks, however, the plan was accelerated. CRS said the White House in November 2002 urged the IOC in-service date be pushed up to 2007, “in light of security issues raised by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

The competition for the development and production contract was pursued aggressively by two industry teams that saw the relatively small but prestigious program as an avenue to wider sales of their products.

Sikorsky’s offering was based on its S-92, which had yet to find a buyer.

Lockheed Martin led a rival team, offering the US101 based on the somewhat larger AW101 made by the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer AgustaWestland. Various models of the AW101 were in service with several NATO nations.

Both teams hoped that winning the presidential fleet contract would give their aircraft an edge in the competition for the Air Force’s CSAR-X combat search and rescue program and other military helicopter projects.

On Jan. 28, 2005, the Navy awarded the contract to the Lockheed Martin-led team. The US101 team received a $1.7 billion cost plus award fee contract for the system development and demonstration phase. The proposed aircraft was given the designation VH-71 and called Kestrel, after a species of falcons.

The decision was denounced by many members of Congress and others who were outraged that the President would be flying in what they considered to be a foreign helicopter. Under the winning bid, the major components of the VH-71s would be produced in AgustaWestland plants in England and Italy, with final assembly at Bell Helicopter in Texas.

The engines would be provided by General Electric, of Lynn, Mass., which also makes the power plants for the VH-3Ds and VH-60Ns.

According to the Navy, the Lockheed Martin team was chosen in part because it “was deemed more likely to be able to meet the program’s operational requirements on time and at a lower cost,” CRS said.

President George Bush and Laura Bush wave as they board the presidential helicopter in 2009. When the Navy wanted to cancel the VH-71 program, Bush overruled it. (USAF photo by TSgt. Suzanne M. Day)

There also were reports at the time that the US101 design was preferred because it had three jet engines, theoretically offering greater security than the S-92’s two.

The VH-71 program then went through several modifications over the years, with varying numbers of aircraft to be produced.

CRS said the goal was to provide 23 new presidential helicopters to replace the 19 existing ones, but the total number to be built ran up to 36 with as many as 28 scheduled to become operational for at least some time.

Because of the stated urgency in providing the President a more capable and secure helicopter, the program was divided into two increments.

Increment 1 helicopters were intended to meet some of the operational requirements and would enter service first, beginning in 2009, as short-term replacements for some of the existing presidential helos. Increment 2 helicopters were to meet all the requirements and would replace the remaining legacy choppers and then the Increment 1 birds.

The Increment 2 helicopters were to begin reaching HMX-1 late in Fiscal 2011, with the full VH-71 fleet expected in service in 2015.

After several revisions, the contract called for the Lockheed team to produce nine Increment 1 helicopters, designated VH-71A, and 27 Increment 2s, or VH-71Bs. That would have included three test aircraft in each increment paid for by the Navy and one test article in each increment funded by the contractors. Five VH-71As were expected to become operational, replacing legacy aircraft. At one point, the Navy considered retrofitting four of the 71As to Increment 2 standards and acquiring only 19 of the more capable aircraft. That plan was scrapped in favor of buying 23 VH-71Bs and retiring the five initial aircraft.

The Poster Child

Marine One aircraft requirements also evolved as the Navy and White House proposed escalating needs for range, capacity, communications, self-protection, and creature comforts for the occupants. In terminating the program, Gates joked that the VH-71 was supposed to be capable of providing the President a three-course meal while fleeing a nuclear attack.

Requirements creep and engineering problems led to the usual schedule delays and cost overruns.

In 2005, the cost of developing and procuring the full VH-71 fleet was estimated at $6.5 billion. By December 2008, the total cost was projected at $13 billion, or more than $500 million per helicopter. IOC for the VH-71As had slipped to mid-2012 and operational capability for the full VH-71B fleet had lurched to 2021, six years behind the original schedule.

President Obama approaches Marine One in 2010. The current Marine One fleet is made up of Sikorsky VH-3 and VH-60N rotary wing aircraft. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

The huge jump in cost put the program into a Nunn-McCurdy breach, requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress and to reconsider the project as early as 2007. The Navy reportedly recommended terminating the program, but the White House, occupied by President George W. Bush, overruled it. By early 2009, with Obama in the White House and the economic recession putting strains on the federal budget, support for the Kestrel had faded.

The President met with lawmakers on Feb. 23, 2009. At this summit, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited the problems with a number of Pentagon procurement programs, including the VH-71.

Obama said he had “talked to Gates about a thorough review of the helicopter situation” and called the program “an example of the procurement process gone amuck,” according to transcripts of the meeting.

“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me,” the President said. “Of course, I’ve never had a helicopter before, maybe I’ve been deprived and I didn’t know it,” he added, drawing laughter.

Obama also told McCain that “Secretary Gates shares our concern and he recognizes that simply adding more and more does not necessarily mean better and better, or safer and more secure.”

When he unveiled the Fiscal 2010 defense budget on April 6, 2009, Gates called for cancellation of the VH-71 program. The SECDEF noted the program’s cost had doubled, it was six years late, and it “runs the risk of not delivering the requested capability.”

“We will promptly develop options for an FY11 follow-on program,” Gates added.

That May 15, then-DOD acquisition executive Ashton B. Carter directed that the VH-71 be canceled, and the Navy immediately issued a stop-work order for the program.

Lockheed officials attributed the cost overruns and program delays to the government’s insistence on extensive modifications to the original proposal. A March 2009 report by the Governmental Accountability Office said post-9/11 security concerns led to an “aggressive acquisition strategy,” confusion on specifications, and concurrent design, testing, and production.

However, the termination drew protests in Congress, and not just from members whose constituents would have benefited from continuing production. By that time, the Navy had spent about $3.3 billion, and nine aircraft had already been built. The VH-71A test aircraft and all five production models had rolled out of the factory.

CRS analyst O’Rourke estimated that shutting down VH-71 production, upgrading the existing fleet, and implementing a successor program would cost somewhere in the range of $14 billion to $21 billion. And starting over meant a new presidential helicopter fleet would not be available until 2024—meaning some of the legacy helicopters serving as Marine One would be 50 years old. Some members of Congress recommended the Navy continue with a modified VH-71 program to gain some return on the $3.3 billion invested and to give the President better aircraft sooner.

Marine One, carrying President Bush, takes off from the deck of USS Iwo Jima after a visit to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast region. Two USAF helicopter programs did not survive defense budget belt-tightening.(USN photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Robert J. Stratchko)

In July 2009, the House Appropriations Committee approved $485 million to make the five production VH-71As operational.

But Gates, in a congressional hearing, called the program “a poster child for an acquisition process gone seriously wrong” and suggested that no single helicopter design could meet the requirements of routine presidential trips and for secure escape during a major threat.

The Navy then completed the termination of the VH-71 program and directed all the remaining funds be used for upgrades and service life extensions of the existing helicopters, according to the Navy’s 2009 contract termination notification. That work is continuing. The Fiscal 2012 President’s budget requested $58 million to carry on “structural enhancement” and avionics updates for the VH-3Ds and VH-60Ns.

“Continued investments in the in-service fleet will ensure continued safe and reliable executive transportation until the replacement aircraft is fielded,” Navy officials said in a Nov. 2 congressional hearing. The budget also included a request for $180.1 million in research funds for the new presidential helicopters program, again to be called VXX.

Let’s Try This Again

Despite the costly failure of the VH-71, the new program is attracting a lot of contractor interest. Lockheed has said it would team with Sikorsky in offering the S-92. Boeing has acquired the US rights to the AW101 and has said it will offer that aircraft as a VXX competitor. But the VXX effort has been put on hold while Carter, now deputy defense secretary, reviews it and other procurement programs in light of defense funding cuts that could reach $1 trillion over 10 years if sequestration is implemented beginning in January 2013.

Meanwhile, the Navy is negotiating with Lockheed over termination costs for VH-71. In 2009 they were estimated at $555 million.

Part of that termination penalty will be covered by the sale of the nine VH-71A airframes to Canada for use as spare parts in its CH-149 search and rescue helicopters. (The CH-149s are also based on the AW101). That sale was announced by Canadian Defense Minister Peter G. MacKay and will reportedly return $164 million—about five percent—of the Navy’s $3.3 billion investment.

In recent years, the Air Force and the Army have learned similar hard lessons in their own efforts to develop and field new helicopters. Each service has had two major rotary wing efforts canceled or stalled over the same time period as the failed Marine One acquisition.

In 2009, Gates terminated the Air Force’s second attempt to buy a new combat search and rescue helicopter in the CSAR-X program. He also canceled the Common Vertical Lift Support Program, intended to replace the aging UH-1 helicopters used at the Minuteman ICBM bases and for VIP support.

Meanwhile, the Army’s high-tech RAH-66 Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter program was canceled in 2004 after 22 years and $6.9 billion spent developing it. The replacement program also was killed in 2008, forcing the Army to continue updating its OH-58 Kiowa Warriors.

So the President won’t be the only one flying in old helicopters well into the next decade.

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.-based military affairs reporter and longtime contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Move That Gas,” appeared in the September 2010 issue.