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Boots on the Ground — Inside the Marine One Program and Other Corps Initiatives

by Ward Carroll on February 24, 2009

You all know by now that Sen. John McCain raised the issue of the VH-71 Kestrel helicopter program — the so-called “Marine One” buy — at the “fiscal summit” yesterday at the White House.

Defense Tech has been on the story for a while but had a hard time getting details on it (sensing the political implications of the program and it’s international component, the program’s been a bit locked down a la F-22).

One thing we did know is that McCain’s defense staff had eyed this program for cancellation months ago. Not sure why they targeted this one in particular, but I have some background on the program from my reporting of the pre-downselect wrangling between Sikorsky and LockMart/Augusta-Westland a few years ago.

I’m not really sure of the urgency of the program — in other words I don’t have a clear sense of how long the VH-3 aircraft are going to be “airworthy” or what the cost-benefit of keeping them in the air vs. buying a new helo really is. My sense was that the award to LockMart/A-W was a bit more risky than the Sikorsky platform, since Sikorsky is cranking out H-60s and was offering an S-92 derivative for the new Prez chopper (it’s just a stretched out version of the 60). How much of the LockMart award was a reach-out to Euro allies is unclear, but more than a few sources say it clearly was.

Program allies have been saying that the increased costs are a result of increased requirements — particularly nuclear hardening and other high-tech add ons. And that may be true. But it seems to me this program was awarded in an environment when these sorts of cost escalations could be expected and accommodated with some grumbling…and I wonder how much the program relied in the idea that “hey, we can’t cut corners with the president’s helicopter” to give them a pass.

Well, looks like the chickens have come to roost.

So, in an effort to give DT readers a bit more perspective, I’m scheduled a live podcast with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Dakota Wood, a former Marine Officer and subject matter expert on Marine programs and organization. We’ll use the opportunity to talk to him a little bit about this and other Corps initiatives at 1430 EST today.

Hope you’ll listen in…

– Christian

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