- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Navy is reviving efforts to build a new fleet of helicopters for the president, with research, development and acquisition efforts heavily focused at the Naval Air Systems Command, headquartered on the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. This is the second attempt in recent years to replace Marine One aircraft.
Attention on the presidential helicopter program, now known as VXX, will likely be intense. The Department of Defense shuttered the program (then called VH-71) in 2009 due to cost and scheduling overruns, as well as concerns about meeting aircraft performance requirements. Meanwhile, Congress continues to debate massive budget cuts to federal agencies.
About three years ago, the government stripped Lockheed Martin Systems Integration of its contract, which led to at least 80 layoffs in St. Mary’s County. A new building had been constructed at Pax River to house the presidential helicopter program. Part of the problem, a report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service said, was “the VH-71 program began with a compressed schedule dictated by White House needs stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.” The old program originally was slated to provide 23 helicopters to support the president for $6.5 billion. The cost escalated to an estimated $13 billion and, the report said, efforts fell six years behind schedule.
This time, “It is the government’s desire to hold development to an absolute minimum on the VXX Program,” NAVAIR wrote in a solicitation draft, posted in December, for bidders to produce the helicopters. Companies are expected to submit offers showcasing aircraft that are improvements to existing designs, rather than designs that have to be produced from scratch. NAVAIR is moving forward, with explicit guidelines set by the Government Accountability Office, which was directed to report on VXX program progress to Congress each year through 2013.
The GAO reported last year that the agency also met with defense contractors from Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. to discuss ways to sustain the current presidential helicopter fleet until replacements are in flight. Requests for comment from NAVAIR and Sikorsky were not returned by deadline.
According to the GAO, planned modifications to the older aircraft, the VH-3D and the VH-60N, include upgrades to instrumentation panels and radio and cryptographic communications, providing all 11 VH-3Ds with rotor blades to improve the amount of weight they can lift, and extending the life of the aircraft from 4,000 flight hours to 18,000 for the VH-3D and 14,000 hours for the VH-60N.
It’s an opportunity for government to streamline aspects of acquisition and development, and a chance for companies to make important contributions to defense, one industry spokesman said.
“One of the issues with government procurement, in the defense sphere, is changing requirements,” said Dan Stohr, a spokesman for Aerospace Industries Association. “That was part of what plagued the original contract award.”
Stohr was referring to additions that, over time, had been proposed for the aircraft. Additions to the older fleet had become a concern, so much that the GAO said they added weight to the aircraft — decreasing other aspects of mission capability.
“Certainly, we in industry are doing the very best to provide the best equipment possible and fulfill our fiduciary responsibilities,” Stohr said. “We would like the most efficient way to get a contract, get to production and put a lot of people to work.”