Caution is the keyword as industry prepares to compete in the Pentagon’s looming VXX competition for a new “Marine One,” or presidential helicopter.
“It’s a legitimate feeling to worry about a bad budget environment,” said industry analyst Richard Aboulafia in a telephone interview. “The last time we tried this, you had the budget people, the Navy, and the Secret Service all inflating the price tag. This time, the money’s not there.”
The VXX program got under way when the Navy issued a new draft request for proposals on Nov. 23, 2012. The Navy now wants 24 helicopters to equip VMX-1, the squadron at Quantico, Va., that provides rotary wing support for the occupant of the White House. Acquisition officials are doing everything they can to dampen expectations that this will be anything but a lean, toughly administered program. The Navy says it won’t repeat its past mistake of allowing “mission creep” – the process whereby new requirements are belatedly tacked onto a program, raising everything from the weight of the aircraft to the cost.
The new competition makes partners of past adversaries. Lockheed Martin is teaming with Sikorsky to propose a version of the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, now being dubbed the Superhawk. Northrop Grumman is partnered with AgustaWestland to offer a version of the AW101 helicopter, a derivative of the military VH-71A that was at the center of a previous, failed effort to produce a helicopter for the commander-in-chief.
It’s unclear whether a third competitor will enter the field. Boeing says it is considering whether to propose its CH-47 Chinook or the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey for the program. Four MV-22 Ospreys are already slated to replace aging CH-46E “Phrogs” in VMX-1 in 2013.
Lockheed Martin won the previous effort in partnership with Agusta to produce the VH-71A. After the contract was awarded in 2005, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates terminated the program in 2009 because new requirements kept increasing the size and cost of the aircraft. These requirements included Secret Service needs for communications gear, armor, and a defensive system, none of which were in the original contract. The cost of the 28 aircraft in the VH-71A program doubled over four years to reach $13 billion, and the Government Accountability Office says the Navy actually spent $3 billion. Marjorie Censer of the Washington Post called the VH-71A a “poster child for a broken military procurement process.”
“They’re going to be watching this one very closely,” said Richard Gann, an author and analyst who has studied the history of presidential helicopters. “This will be a fixed-price contract and you won’t see any bells and whistles being added.”
The Navy included $1.85 billion for the new VXX effort in its fiscal year 2013 budget request.