Pentagon Blowing Billions on One Helicopter — and 20 Spares

When the President steps out of his helicopter on the South Lawn, he’s stepping out of a Nixon- or even LBJ-era helicopter that the Pentagon worries about every day. They would sincerely like to replace it, but, well, they’re the Pentagon, and they can’t buy anything without the whole procurement program turning to feces.

The logical answer, the V-22, isn’t that logical when you realize that only 100-odd have been built so far and some 30 have been written off, including this one that crashed (killing two crewmen) in Morocco on Exercise African Lion in the fall of 2012:

V-22 Down African Lion 2012 Morocco

It’s fine for Marines and our SOF guys, but President ain’t ridin’ that. And that means any President; one doesn’t reach that position by a willingness to risk life and limb any more.

The Pentangle’s last attempt, almost 10 years ago, blew over three billion dollars on European helicopters with a veneer of American badge engineering (and many layers of robustly-paid American middlemen). And they so micromanaged the VH-71 copters that the ones that they’d had built couldn’t even be fobbed off on an ally as airworthy helicopters: Canada took them, but only to part them out. (Bringing the project to airworthy-copter completion would have required handing over another $10 billion to Lockheed Martin… and hoping LockMart had no further cost overruns. What odds?). It did make a pretty artist’s rendering:

VH-71 artists impression

Canadian Forces, by the way, bought the same basic helicopter directly from its manufacturer, cutting out the great greedy gullet of Lockheed and saving billions. (Not that they don’t have fiscal problems with cost overruns by US defense manufacturers, too: they are staggered by the cost of 8 lighter helicopters from Bell, $200 million — Canadian loonies, close enough to par with $USD for our purposes).

The Washington Post sees the whole thing shaping up a second time.

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. “Everyone was chiming in for good measure. . . . Basically they were building something to survive a nuclear war. Literally.”

In 2009, the Pentagon killed the program and eventually sold the helicopters that were in production to Canada for spare parts.

Since then, the Navy has dramatically scaled back the ambitions for the aircraft, officials said, and will use existing, proven technologies instead of trying to build new ones specifically for the helicopter.

via Navy to award contract for Marine One helicopter despite previous failure – The Washington Post.

The Post quotes professional getting-quoted guy Aboulafia, and also someone from the Project On Government Oversight, a group that reflexively opposes all defense procurements because of its “let the Air Force hold a bake sale” and “better Red than dead!” values. But they have a point: this project is not going to be contained in its original budget projection, and its original projections are, frankly, insane.

The new proposal is based on the Sikorsky S-92, but it’s radically different from the production -92 (why?) and it’s being managed by that great steward of the public fisc, Lockheed Martin. (Wait! Didn’t they just… well, yeah).

The first helicopters will cost $3.2 billion, over $1 billion each, and the Pentagon imagines that by “mass producing” 21 helicopters, the unit cost will drop. Some of those 21 are probably “sacrificial tail numbers” that are intended to be cast aside in future phony budget-cutting, but there’s no need for such a big fleet of VIP aircraft: one aircraft is needed for a decoy, two more for operational and maintenance floats, and one or two for training of air and ground crews, since the Pentagon insists on buying a custom, bespoke helicopter for this purpose alone (previous Presidential helicopters have been ordinary military models with upgraded interiors and communications). And some of them are probably intended to push the VIP helicopter perk further down the ranks of the Washington political class.

burning-wasting-moneyThe Post tried to pin down Captain Dean Peters, USN, the guy leading this squanderathon, on what the whole project would cost. Peters was shifty and evasive and they got nothing out of him, which implies that Peters is either trying to hide the staggering project cost, or, more likely, has no earthly idea where the escalating price will finally stop. Neither possibility reassures.

And he’s the guy supposedly managing the project. If a PM can’t price his project, he’s at the point of epic fail already. No business would tolerate this, but DOD works no other way.

Peters was probably perfectly competent as a boat driver or air wing officer, and it’s probably not his personal fault that his project is failing. It’s deeply rooted in the DOD’s byzantine and corrupt acquisition culture, which has every incentive to gold-plate every contract, because neither the DOD acquirer, in this case the Navy, nor the manufacturer, in this case a consortium of Sikorsky and the previous project mismanager, Lockheed Martin, bear any cost risk in the program. It’s all laid off on the taxpayers.

After he’s bungled this project to failure, or completion at a shadow of the foreseen capability and a vast overshadow of the foreseen cost, Peters will step into a rich sinecure at one of the DOD prime contractors, if takes the usual procurement officer “retirement” route. Indeed, it will almost cerntainly be one he’s just been signing padded checks to. (Where’s Glenn Reynolds’s Revolving-Door Surtax (original proposal here) when you need it?)

There is no rational reason for a helicopter to cost a billion dollars. Indeed, there’s no rational reason for, and many strong arguments against, a Presidential helicopter that is its own custom, bespoke airframe not used on other military missions. What’s wrong with our current rotorcraft in the VIP role? Here’s what Peters’s office would tell you:

  • H-60: too small. President has to duck under the rotors, which is unseemly. And besides, it’s an Army, not Marine helicopter.
  • H-47: too big, and besides, it’s an Army, not Marine helicopter.
  • H-53: too big, even though the Navy and Marines fly lots of them. Plus, it’s not new.
  • H-65: too small, and only flown by the Coast Guard.
  • V-22: too small, and too dangerous for a President.

Most likely outcome of this Goldilocks helicopter quest: about the same as the VH-71 fiasco. We buy a handful of these specialty helicopters, for a unit cost higher than Air Force 1, which is where Peters’s project presently points. And the DOD struggles for a few years to maintain them with no spares commonality with any DOD helicopter fleet, before giving up. But a lot of DOD contractors will cash in, and that is, ultimately, what the hokey-pokey of DOD procurement is all about.

Hat tip, Ralph Benko at Forbes via Glenn Reynolds.

13 thoughts on “Pentagon Blowing Billions on One Helicopter — and 20 Spares

  1. AndyN

    I’m actually surprised that they bothered offsetting some of the cost of the last failure by selling the rejects to Canada. I’d have assumed they’d just shove them in a warehouse somewhere and eat the entire loss.

    Hopefully one of your knowledgeable readers will correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the more important measure of aircraft age flight hours rather than years in service? I wonder how many unnecessary flight hours have been added to these aircraft for golf outings and fund-raising dinners over the years. Maybe we wouldn’t have to be buying new ones if presidents would have someone drive them to the airport for personal trips.

    1. Joe

      Heck, we’re still flying B-52’s, the last of which was produced in 1963. I thought I saw a projection somewhere that they planned to keep them in inventory through 2040.

      In light of the boondoggle the F-35 program has turned into it doesn’t surprise me we’re buying billion dollar helicopters.

      1. Y.

        According to projections, USAF is going to have 1 combat plane by 2050.

        Rising costs, you see. Back in WWII, a strategic bomber cost $300,000k. A fighter plance $50K.

  2. Oberndorfer

    Heiland: segne Du die Bienen,
    die durch Wachs dem Altar dienen,
    die durch Honig uns ernähern,
    die uns Fleiss und Ordnung lehren.
    (from the Ottobeuren Abbey Apiary)

    1. Oberndorfer

      Not entirely OT (as we all like the Hubschraubers) and today we had Ascension Day.
      A holiday for us believers, and some cake.
      Der Erfolg gibt Recht (your German beats my Englisch) and all the best for all of you, as Oberndorfer shall log out for PERSEC (no 1st amendmend north of the Rhine and no 2nd either).
      WM on The Ross Rifle, please.
      The basements are empty now, thermic recycling. I salvaged some interesting 1967 blueprints of a 7,62×40, though.
      Greetings to the J3st3r
      Good post, thoughtfully worded:
      Spose I need some rest then and a big Danke to the commenteers.

      1. Hognose Post author

        I’m assuming your resubmit of this means you do want it public. If not say so (here or email) and I’ll disappear it again.

        1. Oberndorfer

          Coming here was a much needed and well appreciated break from reality during a tough period in life and I cannot express enough respect and gratitude in words for your efforts.
          Time now to move on.
          Mange tak, c’était un honneur d’être là.
          Ja sam dobro, vidimo se.

          1. Hognose Post author

            We shall miss your insights and local knowledge, and will await with hope the dawn of your return.

            Sorry about the, “tough period in life.” Everybody has ’em; they’re easier to bear with some shoulders to lean on.

      2. Y.


        German gov’t has only got a persecutory hard-on for Holocaust denial, so, what’s he worried about?

  3. Jim Scrummy

    The current Navy 0-6 will be long gone when this baby starts ramping up to production. So, some other USN/USMC 0-6 will see this project started and then he/she will hand it off to some other unlucky 0-6. My over under will be at least 6 PMs before the first 3 birds are completed. Not to worry, these 0-6s will retire and become PMs for the manufacturers in the consortium…with bonuses. That’s how it works, sadly.

  4. Bill K

    It makes me wonder if Pharaoh sank faster than the others in the Red Sea, courtesy of his gold-plated super-chariot. One can only hope…

    1. Y.

      I don’t think you can sink if the water comes from over your head, technically speaking..

  5. Aesop

    I have no problem with ordering helos not in mil inventory, because there’s currently no military chopper suitable that isn’t too big, too small, or too old.

    Where the problem sets in is letting the Pentagon handle it.
    This should be the Secret Service’s problem, with input from HMX-1.
    Find a commercially available bird, harden it and gold plate it appropriately, buy half a dozen, paint them green and white, and we’re good to go for another generation, 5-8 presidents or so.

    If the Secret Service can’t get 6 suitable helos for under $250M, they aren’t doing it right, and the CO of HMX-1 and the head of the Protective Service should both be fired for cause.

    Game(s) over.

    But given the surplus of human anchors in the 0-7+ grades in the USN, I’m shocked to hear that this is being headed up by a mere lowly 0-6, instead of one of the legion (near-literally) of available flag-grade jackasses. Must have been an oversight.

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