White House Helicopter Fleet

April 24, 2014

Did you know that the White House has a fleet of 19 helicopters? The Washington Post today discusses efforts to replace this fleet of aging Sikorsky’s with 21 new vehicles yet to be procured. The fleet is used by the president, vice president, and cabinet secretaries.

The size of the helicopter fleet seems excessive. For one thing, I understand that cabinet secretaries have become mere minions to presidential aides, so I’m surprised that they would generally need access to such high-cost transportation.

The Post story focuses on the $3.2 billion flushed down the drain the last time the White House tried to replace its helicopter fleet:

The last time the Pentagon tried to upgrade the president’s coolest ride — the fleet of helicopters that drop him at his doorstep on the South Lawn of the White House — it didn’t go well. Costs doubled. Delays sparked ridicule, then outrage. And President Obama, then just a few weeks in office, said it was “an example of the procurement process gone amok” before defense officials killed the program outright.

It was an embarrassing debacle that cost $3.2 billion and produced no usable helicopter, turning an iconic symbol of presidential power into an illustration of government waste and incompetence … 

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, replacing the helicopters — which fly under the call sign “Marine One” when the president is aboard — became a priority for the Pentagon. In 2005, a team led by Lockheed Martin won the contract, beating out Sikorsky, which built the helicopters currently used in the Marine One program.

But soon it became a case study in how not to build a helicopter, analysts say. The design became so overloaded with new requirements — to be able to hover longer and at high altitudes, travel great distances without refueling, and defend against missile attacks — it essentially became an impossible task. “Too many people had a seat at the table,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Fairfax-based Teal Group …

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that the last effort failed because “it was almost like they were trying to cram rotors onto Air Force One. This time, there has been careful monitoring, and the process seems much more realistic thus far” …

Some are skeptical that once the helicopters start being built, the Navy, the White House, the Secret Service or any of the other agencies involved will be able to resist restoring expensive features that had been scrapped for savings and efficiency. “Some bright person is going to say, ‘I know we took it out in order to get the contract signed in the first place, but I think we really underestimated our needs,’” said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org. “Sikorsky will sell you as much helicopter as you’re willing to pay for. And nothing is too good for the president. So you have to be concerned that they have temporarily scaled it back, but that it will bloat up again down the road.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been pushing for Lockheed to get the contract because much of the work would be done at its facility in Upstate New York, said that the cost will be heavily scrutinized.

As most people know, the Pentagon has had chronic cost overruns in procurement for decades. It is interesting that the agency has yet to solve these problems because military leaders surely do not enjoy being repeatedly lambasted by Congress and the media.

The Pentagon promises to get the new helicopter project right, and Senator Schumer says that he is watching closely. So taxpayers can breathe easy that at least this military project will come in on-time and under-budget. :-)

Note on Downsizing Government: Nicole Kaeding is updating this essay on government cost overruns, so look for that in coming months.


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