Four long years after the Pentagon selected the Lockheed Martin US101 as the president’s new helicopter, Rotor & Wing looks back at the selection and turbulent development of the next Marine One.
On January 28, 2005 the Pentagon announced the selection of the Lockheed Martin EH101 as the winner of the VXX competition to replace the Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King as the president’s next helicopter. For the first time in the history of presidential rotary-wing transportation, the president of the United States’ primary helicopter will be an aircraft designed in Europe. Losing the competition was Sikorsky’s VH-92 Superhawk. The contract required that the winner deliver a lead-off batch of five helicopters for initial operational capability (IOC) in 2009, to be followed by a second increment of 18 helicopters.
For most industry experts and aviation enthusiasts, the EH101 was a surprising choice. The Washington Post pulled no punches in stating, "Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. — maker of the presidents’ helicopters since the Eisenhower administration — lost its parking spot on the White House lawn yesterday." A few weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, a Business Week Internet article was titled, "Marine One, Sikorsky Zero."
In the months leading up to the decision to select the EH101, the foreign versus domestic content of the two competing aircraft was the most explosive political issue in the debate over the choice of transports.
The EH101 is based on the AW101 platform, manufactured by AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of the Italian firm Finmeccanica. Operational variants of the EH101 include Britain’s Merlin helicopter, in service with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and the Canadian Armed Force’s CH-149 Cormorant. Several other countries currently operate versions of the EH101 in a multitude of roles. The fuselage, rotor blades, and dynamic components of the first AW101 aircraft would be manufactured overseas with systems integration and final production taking place at Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Patuxent River, Md. and Owego, N.Y. Production of the aircraft would eventually shift to a Bell Helicopter factory in Texas.
Sikorsky was keenly aware of the negative publicity surrounding the EH101 from those opposing the idea of the president of the United States flying on an aircraft of European design or manufacture. However, the Sikorsky S-92 began with five global partners: China, Brazil, Taiwan, Spain and Japan. All were involved in the civilian S-92 manufacturing. In an attempt to improve the domestic bloodline of their contender, Sikorsky replaced, and reportedly upset, their international partners by using American subcontractors; choosing to submit a VH-92 helicopter built completely in the U.S. Sikorsky then shifted its marketing tactics to promote this all-American pedigree.
According to a DoD News Transcript, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition John Young announced the decision to award the contract to the US101, stating, "The cost to go in the program is in research and development, which includes the procurement of three test aircraft, five pilot production aircraft, which form the Increment One initial capability to be delivered in 2009; and also three of the Increment Two aircraft as a low-rate procurement purchase. That’s $3.5 billion of effort, to be followed by procurement of the remaining Increment Two aircraft — 15 helicopters — for $2.5 billion. So the cost to go to the government was $6.1 billion."
The events of September 11, 2001 identified some shortcomings of the current presidential fleet. A plan was developed to field the new fleet of aircraft in two phases in order to speed acquisition of the new airframes and the retirement of the ageing VH-3D helicopters. The first group, Increment One, which was comprised of limited-capability helicopters would consist of five ships with an anticipated IOC of October 2009. The remaining helicopters would be fully-outfitted Increment Two aircraft programmed to replace the Increment One aircraft as they are phased out near 2019.
The Increment One aircraft, given the designation VH-71A, feature the basic EH101 airframe with three General Electric CT7-8E engines providing 2,530 horsepower each.
Designed to meet White House requirements, the Increment Two helicopters, scheduled to carry the VH-71B designation, will feature the more powerful GE CT7 engines producing 3,000hp each, blades from the British Experimental Rotor Program (BERP) IV, a lengthened tail section, plus greater range (350 nm) and payload capabilities.
In May 2007, R&W reported that the U.S. General Accountability Office’s (GAO) review of the VH-71 program showed the aircraft to be 1,200 pounds more than the initial specified weight, resulting in a reduced operating range. In January 2009, R&W’s Richard Whittle reported that the Increment One VH-71As will have a 150 nm range — barely one half of the specified 280 nm specification.
More alarming than the weight issue was the ever-increasing cost of the helicopters. Lockheed Martin reported that the compressed timetable for production of the VH-71 was causing cost overruns and aggravating the weight issue. The March GAO report predicted that costs may exceed initial estimates by 18 percent.
Lockheed and the U.S. Navy, who manage the program through NAVAIR, have attributed the delays and cost issues affecting the program to an accelerated schedule and complex requirements. Navy officials have admitted that changes in the requirements have contributed to some of the delays.
On December 21, 2007, the Navy told Lockheed Martin to stop work on the development of the Increment Two aircraft for 90 days. January 12, 2008 brought Lockheed Martin officials to a meeting at the Pentagon with John Young to discuss the stop-work order and possible restructuring. The Navy reported, after the meeting, that Lockheed Martin "closed the gap, are in agreement on the contract requirements and have made significant progress towards initial operational capability." At the same time, The Hartford Courant reported that the Pentagon had asked Sikorsky to study the feasibility of maintaining the VH-3Ds and VH-60N Whitehawks until 2020, eight years longer than their expected retirement, to cover VH-71 delays.
When Lockheed Martin was selected for the VXX program, there was little doubt that the EH101 needed a certain amount of redesign to accommodate the requirements of the presidential support mission and to meet NAVAIR airworthiness requirements. Both Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky had brought production airframes to the competition, and it was the intent of the Pentagon to save development costs by modifying an existing platform to meet the needs of the president. Soon after the program was started, it became quickly evident that the Navy was not modifying a commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft, but putting the EH101 through a complete overhaul to meet the expanding requirements.
The original VH-71 program planned to rely on an existing commercial helicopter and make modest modifications. The Navy and industry team did not fully realize the implications of the White House’s communications and security requirements. These issues were further complicated by the enforcement of Navy certification requirements on a helicopter designed to commercial aviation standards. To achieve the requirements and the government technical certification demands, the Navy and industry teams are having to complete a substantial redesign of the EH-101 helicopter to meet the Increment Two requirements.
This redesign has come at a price. The Pentagon estimated that the total program cost could double from $6.8 billion to $11.2 billion. Critics argued that the Pentagon had brought this pain onto itself with the selection of the EH101. Young responded by saying, "[The EH101] starts very close to the capabilities base we need. I don’t think there’s any basis to relook that." Young stated that had the Pentagon selected a different platform, the development would be at least as long and as costly as the EH101 redesign.
R&W’s Rebecca Christie reported in May 2008 that the head of NAVAIR, Vice Admiral Dave Venlet, commented on the redesign of the aircraft, stating that the platform, not the requirements, would be changing. Venlet said, "There’s nothing on the shelf that can do that [mission], so we’re just knuckling down."
Following the stop-work order, the Navy and Lockheed Martin began undertaking comprehensive studies to restructure the program. With the studies came personnel changes. NAVAIR’s program was taken over by Capt. Donald Gaddis, and Lockheed Martin’s Jeff Bantle was brought into the VH-71 side of the house. Capt. Gaddis came from the F/A-18 program and Bantle, a former NASA space shuttle flight director, had been handling the Lockheed Martin systems integration side of the Navy’s MH-60S and MH-60R programs.
In January 2009, R&W learned that the NAVAIR program office had developed 35 different options to restructure the Increment Two program for presentation to the incoming Obama administration. Congress asked the Navy to file two reports on the state of the VH-71 program. The first report was to provide analysis of the performance requirements, program delays, and cost overruns, as well as to provide an explanation for why the timeline and cost was initially underestimated. The second report asked the Pentagon to weigh the pros and cons of re-starting the VXX competition to re-select the EH101, renamed the US101, or a different airframe.
The significant cost increase of the program has brought it into the realm of the 1982 Defense Authorization Act. The Nunn-McCurdy Amendment calls for Congressional cancellation of any military contract that exceeds its original cost estimates by 25 percent or more, unless the Pentagon can prove that the program is a critical system at any cost, or can justify the increase in cost the contract.
Despite the stop-work order on the Increment Two helicopters, the test aircraft and production flyers continued to progress through a multitude of tests. Homeland Security agencies and Marines from HMX-1, the unit that would eventually operate the helicopters, tested the avionics and communications systems of the new aircraft in Lockheed Martin’s Master Systems Bench (MSB) — a full-sized replica of the VH-71 cockpit and cabin located at Owego. A second MSB is located at Patuxent River. The aircraft are to have both secure and non-secure voice communications, satellite network connectivity, and advanced voice-over-Internet protocol capabilities.
The VH-71 test vehicles continue to fly to support the test program while undergoing incremental modifications to bring them to full mission capable configurations. As of press time, three Increment One production helicopters were delivered to the United States for final production activities, integration and test. Ground vibration testing for the aircraft has been completed at the Presidential Helicopter Support Facility at Patuxent River Naval Air Station using one of these production vehicles.
Continuing delays in the VH-71 program caused the Marine Corps to investigate modernizing their fleet of Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King helicopters to help bridge the gap to the introduction of the VH-7A1.
In January, the first Increment One helicopter began its final production. After completion, the VIP-outfitted "White Top" VH-71A will be sent to HMX-1, the Marine Corps Presidential Support helicopter squadron, for continued testing and eventual operational use. The squadron is expecting IOC sometime in mid-2012, but that could be sped up into 2011 if an increase in funds is realized. None of the VH-71 test vehicles will fly with HMX-1 in an operational capacity since they are for test and development work only.
HMX-1 currently operates the Sikorsky VH-3D, VH-60N, CH-53E Super Stallion, and the Boeing CH-46E Sea Knight as it prepares to add the yet-to-be nicknamed VH-71A to its stable. The Center for Naval Analyses is currently conducting a year-long independent evaluation of HMX-1 to develop proposals for the future composition of the squadron as a reduction in the number of types of aircraft employed by the squadron would undoubtedly bring cost and maintenance savings to the Marine Corps.
It has been four years since the official announcement of the winner of the VXX competition and the Lockheed Martin VH-71. The good news for the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin is that the VH-71A is coming on line and meeting or exceeding the requirements for the Increment One system. Seven of the nine Increment One aircraft are in flight test and integration at press time — a four year acquisition cycle that is considerably faster than the Pentagon’s usual seven year time frame. The bad news is that the Increment Two VH-71B is still facing some of its largest budget and development hurdles and is in the unwanted spotlight of the press and politicians due to its ballooning cost and expected delays. Meanwhile, the stop work order is still active and Lockheed Martin is hoping to resume Increment Two development in September of this year with an eye on IOC of the VH-71B in 2019.
VXX Competition Timeline:
December 18, 2003 - Naval Air Systems Command requests proposals for a new VIP helicopter.
February 2, 2004 - Proposals due.
January 28, 2005 - Contract winner announced (postponed from Dec. 18).
Test Vehicle 1 (TV-1) was a leased EH101 used for early testing and returned in May 2008.
July 3, 2007 - First Flight TV-2 Yeovil, England by AgustaWestland Chief Test Pilot Don Maclaine and Senior Test Pilot Dick Trueman.
October 16, 2007 - TV-2 arrives from England aboard a USAF C-17 and begin testing at NAS Patuxent River, Md. (PAX)
November 14, 2007 - Systems Integration Lab brought online at PAX.
December 11, 2007 - TV-5 first flight.
December 19, 2007 - TV-5 arrives at PAX.
February 27, 2008 - TV-3 first flight.
March 17, 2008 - TV-3 arrives at Owego, N.Y.
March 19, 2008 - TV-4 first flight.
April 24, 2008 - TV-4 arrives at Owego, N.Y.
September 22, 2008 - First production VH-71A (PP-1) first flight.
November 24, 2008 - PP-1 arrives at PAX for vibration tests.
November 29, 2008 - PP-3 first flight.
December 16, 2008 - PP-3 arrives in US for systems integration.
January 9, 2009 - PP-3 arrives at Owego.
January 13, 2009 - PP-4 first flight.
January 16, 2009 - PP-4 arrives at PAX.
Fate of VH-71 TBD
The Lockheed Martin team’s VH-71 presidential helicopter contract would be cancelled and rebid under a plan to reform Pentagon spending announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates shortly before this edition of R&W went to press. In an April 6 news conference, Gates said the Pentagon would "promptly develop options" for a new Marine One program to begin in fiscal year 2011.
"There needs to be a new presidential helicopter," he said. "There’s still good service life left in the ones that are in the fleet right now. So we have time to do this. And so we will begin a review of the requirements with the White House as soon as the FY ‘10 budget is submitted."
Gates’ plan is sure to provoke fights in Congress. His proposal includes halting production of the F-22 Raptor fighter plane, moving ahead with the F-35 fighter, making major cuts in the Army’s top-priority Future Combat Systems and cancelling Air Force projects, including the CSAR-X search and rescue helicopter.
Thirteen House members sent Gates a letter March 16 that said cancelling the VH-71 "would be irresponsible and self-defeating." Blaming the program’s cost and schedule overruns on "excessive requirements" imposed by the government, the House members urged Gates to use the Increment One aircraft as the final version of the VH-71 if the planned Increment Two version "cannot be procured in a cost-effective manner."
Gates rejected that advice. "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 capability."
"Some have suggested that we should adjust the program by buying only the lower-capability Increment One option," Gates continued. "I believe this is neither advisable nor affordable. Increment One helicopters do not meet the requirements and are estimated to have only a five- to 10-year useful life."