This article was first published at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Monday, May 12, 2014:
When Ike occupied the White House, he asked his staff about using a military helicopter to fly him to his summer home in Pennsylvania. A Sikorsky UH-34 Seahorse was selected as the aircraft of choice: no creature comforts, no air-conditioning, no toilet.
In 1958, the helicopter was upgraded, and then again in 1961. By 1978, the Marines and the Army were flying VH-3As, which were further upgraded in 1987. By 2000, even these upgrades were falling behind the technology curve, and by 2009 the White House helicopter stable included 11 VH-3Ds and eight VH-60Ns (the V stood for VIP).
The 9/11 attacks changed everything.
The White House demanded that the helicopters be bullet-proof and missile-proof. Each aircraft had to have anti-missile defense systems to thwart heat-seekers as well as radar-directed attacks. They had to have encrypted communications and video-conferencing. They had to be large enough to carry up to 14 people along with their luggage, but small enough to use the White House lawn. Each had to be capable of traveling a minimum of 300 miles, and be hardened against an EMP attack, either by an enemy or resulting from a solar flare.
And each had to have air conditioning and toilets.
Skeptics greeted the news that the latest attempt to upgrade the presidential helicopter fleet could be done for $1.2 billion. The last effort failed back in 2009 when the upgrade program announced in 2005 – at $6.1 billion – exploded into hyperspace and was shut down after the program exceeded $11 billion.
The trouble is the continually expanding wish list from the White House, along with the explosion of new technology. And mission creep.
Under the contract announced last week, Sikorsky promised to deliver two prototypes by 2016, with another 21 fully operational aircraft five years later.
The first question arises: since there's just one president and just one vice president, how can they justify a stable of (currently 19) and a projected 23 helicopters to transport them? First, the presidential helicopter doesn't fly alone, but is surrounded, in a variable formation, with four others identical to it, in a tactical game of a presidential shell game. In addition, if the trip is more than 300 miles, other helicopters have to be stashed – “cached” – along the way.
Why not use the current stable of 19, and save some money? The plausible explanation is that the present fleet is too old. Even with continual upgrades, the wish list of equipment demanded is growing exponentially, exceeding the capacity of the existing airframes, even with new gearing, engines and rotors. The new technology weighs more than the present aircraft can handle.
The 9/11 attacks galvanized the White House into demanding an upgrade, and by 2005 Sikorsky had been awarded the upgrade contract, at just over $6 billion. By 2008 cost overruns had run up the tab to more than $13 billion, just in time for the presidential elections. When the overruns became a political issue – John McCain cleverly pointed out that one helicopter would cost the same as Air Force One – a heavily modified 747 – and Congress went nuts. Sikorsky blamed the Navy, saying it had added some 1,900 extra requirements. The Navy said, no, Sikorsky had an “incomplete understanding” of the agreement. Then Secretary of Defense robert gates had to separate the pugilists in April, 2009, when he cancelled the program altogether, saying:
This program was originally designed to provide 23 helicopters to support the president at a cost of $6.5 billion.
Today, the program is estimated to cost over $13 billion, has fallen six years behind schedule, and runs the risk of not delivering the requested capabilit[ies]….
Congress went crazy when it learned that more than $3 billion had already been sunk into the program, while the Government Accountability Office refused even to estimate what the taxpayer had lost in the aborted program.
So another running start at upgrading the helicopter fleet started immediately, resulting in the announcement last week that Sikorsky got the nod for the upgrade.
Skeptics laughed out loud at the idea that Sikorsky could do for a billion dollars what it hadn't been able to for $6 billion, or even $11 billion. One skeptic pointed to the report by the Congressional Research Service, which estimated that any new upgrade project would cost between $10 billion and $17 billion after all the dust had settled. And that didn't include either the $3 billion already sunk into the previous black hole or the cost of continuing to maintain and keep operational the existing fleet of helicopters until the new ones arrive in 2022. Unfortunately, that report was dated in 2009.
With inflation, mission creep, new technology, and the never-ending, ever-expanding list of presidential demands, it's easy to conclude that the new fleet of presidential helicopters, along with the 800 Marines required to manage, maintain, and fly them, will run well over $20 billion, or nearly four times what the original program was estimated to cost, which was cancelled in 2009 due to overruns.
This is just another government program that will continue to expand exponentially until the government itself runs out of money. The only good news apparent at the moment is that it's one program that can't be blamed on Obama. By 2022 he'll have been out of office for five years.
The Daily Beast: Obama's New Helicopter Fleet Could cost $20 Billion
The announcement from the Department of Defense
Special report on the presidential helicopter program in 2009
Sikorsky wins $1.24 billion contract for Presidential Helicopters
Background on the presidential helicopters starting with Ike
The Presidential “Shell Game” using five helicopters to disguise the president's