COMMENTARY: Presidential helicopter plans still grounded
In 2002, the White House and the Navy decided the president should have a new Marine One helicopter. The one he was flying in, and for that matter is still flying in, was based on a design then 30 years old.
The Navy began seeking bids for what it called the VXX procurement program. A spirited bidding war ensued among the U.S. companies Sikorsky (which had been making the earlier Marine Ones) and Lockheed, the Italian-English firm AgustaWestland, Europe’s Airbus and Brazil’s Embraer.
One by one, the bidders dropped out as the White House and Secret Service began adding more specifications to the program. Among them: crashworthiness, a kitchen, state-of-the-art defensive measures such as advanced radar, laser detectors and counter-measures against missiles, and communications systems that would allow secure video-conferencing between the president and advisers anywhere in the world.
All of this, of course, costs money. The original development contract ballooned from $6.2 billion to $11 billion and the cost per presidential helicopter rose to $400 million. As congressional critics delighted in pointing out, that’s more costly than the president’s Air Force One Boeing 747.
Because of the cost, Congress canceled the program in 2009. The Republicans had a brief stab at blaming the cost overruns on Barack Obama, who in fact was not yet president. Obama said the existing helicopter seemed perfectly adequate to him, although, “of course, I’ve never had a helicopter before. Maybe I was deprived and didn’t know it.”
Last November, the Navy solicited bids for a new Marine One under the VXX procurement program. A number of aircraft manufacturers expressed interest, but by close of business Thursday, when bids were due, all but one had dropped out.
That company is Sikorsky, builder of the existing fleet of Marine Ones. Critics claim the specifications had been deliberately tailored so only one company fit the bill. The losers are likely to enlist their allies in Congress to reopen the bidding with different criteria. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who played a key role in killing the original deal, is vowing to fight the new helicopter if he finds the plan “unsatisfactory.”
The first of 21 helicopters are to be delivered in 2020. That means the only way Obama will fly in the new Marine One is as a guest of his successor or, possibly, his successor’s successor.