How the White House Choppers Spiraled Out of Control

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Jim Young / Reuters

President Barack Obama steps off Marine One to board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base

One response of the Bush Administration to the attacks of 9/11 was to invade Iraq. Another was to order up a new fleet of hyper-secure helicopters to transport the Commander in Chief — out of concern that a President borne by the current generation of choppers could be cut off from the rest of the world. But like the war in Iraq, the new helicopters are taking much longer, and costing far more, than originally anticipated. As President Barack Obama winds down the war, it's looking increasingly likely that he'll also end the Pentagon's four-year effort to buy a new fleet of presidential aircraft.

The 28 VH-71 choppers were slated to make their first takeoff from the White House lawn in 2012. But their cost has soared from an estimated $6.1 billion in 2005 to $13.4 billion today. "We're not going to pay $500 million for one helicopter. Period," Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, declared recently. At $480 million a piece — roughly the price of the 747s fitted as Air Force One — the choppers, part of Lockheed Martin's VH-71 program are "in deep trouble," Pentagon officials said on Tuesday. (See pictures of the Army Reserve.)

With most taxpayers counting pennies and preparing to file tax returns, Obama made clear in an exchange on Monday with his former rival, Republican Senator John McCain, that he finds his aging fleet of Marine One "white-tops" perfectly adequate. Many of the trips they take are short hops, like the 10 minutes between the White House and Andrews Air Force Base. "It is an example of the procurement process gone amok," Obama said after McCain queried him about the new helicopters ("I didn't have as much interest in the presidential helicopter," McCain noted on Tuesday, "as I had several months ago.")

Only the Pentagon could turn a $60 million helicopter — the European-made EH-101 — into a $480 million whirlybird. The Pentagon's Defense Science Board, in a report released earlier this month, didn't mince words in assigning blame for the fiasco. "The schedule was acknowledged at the start to be high-risk and very aggressive," it said, "driven by post-9/11 global war on terror urgency." The costs started climbing as the White House informed the Pentagon and its contractors of its wish list of encrypted video, telephone and electronic capabilities that it wanted aboard the new birds.

The post-9/11 need for security led to secret requirements for onboard jammers to thwart radars and missiles. Then there was the required shielding to help protect the choppers' electronic guts from being fried by electromagnetic pulses generated by nuclear blasts (as well as separate systems to protect against biological and chemical weapons). Pentagon officials say the VH-71 isn't so much a modified EH-101 as it is a "whole new helicopter." Then, of course, there was the kitchen and bathroom for the 14 passengers (the new choppers can fly 300 miles, triple the range of the current Marines Ones, making such facilities desirable). The Navy, which buys all Marine aircraft, and its contractors simply saluted and passed on the escalating costs to the taxpayers.

In a familiar Pentagon-procurement pattern, the Navy and its contractors began blaming one another for the spiraling costs once the program came under a critical spotlight. John Young, the Pentagon's outgoing acquisition czar, recently blamed both. He cited the program as emblematic of a Pentagon culture wedded to rosy cost projections. "Higher costs, whether based on low estimates or poor enterprise management, is unacceptable and harmful to the defense enterprise," he wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month. "The acquisition team bears significant responsibility for moving forward with these programs built on inadequate foundations." (Read "Can Robert Gates Tame the Pentagon?")

The 28-helicopter buy has been broken down into two pieces, with the first five aircraft better than the ones the President currently uses. But they're not the equivalent of the "flying Oval Office" with all the communication and security gear slated for the final 23, due to be delivered by 2019. With the first batch currently beginning flight tests, the Connecticut congressional delegation has been urging the Pentagon to shift some of the work to Sikorsky Aircraft. That Connecticut firm built every presidential helicopter since President Eisenhower was the first to regularly fly in one, until the tradition was broken by the 2005 award to Lockheed Martin and its European partners, Italy's Augusta and Britain's Westland.

Obama told McCain that he and Gates share the Senator's view that sometimes pushing for too much in a new piece of equipment makes little sense. Gates "recognizes that simply adding more and more does not necessarily mean better and better," Obama said. But for a Pentagon accustomed to having its way with the White House — and it nervously awaits Obama's imprint on its 2010 budget — those are fighting words.

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