Pricey New Presidential Choppers Not Made in U.S.A.

Monday, 02 Mar 2009 12:29 PM

By Nat Helms

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President Barack Obama’s entreaties to “buy American” to improve the economy apparently doesn’t include the fleet of new Marine One helicopters he’ll soon be shuttled around in.

The Pentagon is spending $11.2 billion for 23 European-designed, British-built helicopters to replace the aging squadron of American aircraft used by American presidents for the past 30 years.

Critics of the presidential purchase claim the contract for the new Lockheed Martin “US101” variant of the Italian choppers violates a decades-old law that requires weapons systems and components used by the U.S. military to be made primarily in the United States.

Lockheed Martin Systems Integration - Owego is the prime contractor for the U.S. Navy's VH-71 Presidential Helicopter program. Troy Scully, a Lockheed Martin spokesman there, said the finished airframes contain enough U.S.-made components to satisfy current laws governing military purchases.

The completed helicopters are delivered to Owego from Yeovil, England aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 for final assembly after being test flown in England. After being fitted with an electronics suite “as capable as what is on Air Force One” the new helicopters will be delivered to the Marine Corps to fly the President, Scully said.

The Pentagon turned down Sikorsky Aircraft’s bid for an American made “Marine One” helicopter fleet despite strong lobbying from a powerful group of Republicans who wanted the new helicopter made by Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut.

Last March the Pentagon began studying why the program had nearly doubled in cost after Pentagon acquisition chief John Young reported that total costs has grown from $6.8 billion to $11.2 billion since the contract was let in 2005.

Young said the Navy and Lockheed Martin shared responsibility for the burgeoning cost.

“The Navy and industry team did not clearly realize the full implications of the White House requirements,” Young said in a statement at the time.

The program recently drew the ire of Arizona Sen. John McCain after the Navy reported to Congress on January 29 that after nine months of figuring it still hadn’t figured out a way to cut the price tag. McCain complained the fleet cost as much as Air Force One, a giant Boeing 747 airliner.

The cost overrun report triggered a “Nunn-McCurdy violation,” which requires the Pentagon to notify Congress that spending on the project was out of control. The Nunn-McCurdy clause is part of an amendment to the 1982 Defense Authorization Act that eventually became permanent law.

A violation occurs when total costs increase by more than 25 percent over original estimates. The price for violating the law is its immediate termination unless it is re-certified as a national security requirement by the Secretary of Defense, according to the exceptions written in the law.

The European designed and built AgustaWestland AW-101 multi-mission helicopter being reconfigured by Lockheed Martin has been in operational service since 1999.

Lockheed Martin renamed the three-engine Italian design the “US101” during competition with other American aircraft manufacturers bidding for the lucrative contract. The U.S. Navy designated its newest helicopter the “VH-71” after fly offs with Sikorsky Aircraft, the manufacturer of the current 25 aircraft fleet.

Seven VH-71 Marine One clones already built are in various stages of testing in the United States and Tuesday an eighth helicopter made its maiden flight at AgustaWestland's facility in England, Scully told Newsmax.

In May, 2005 the Republican-dominated House of Representatives approved legislation to again preserve the U.S. industrial base by requiring the U.S. Department of Defense to make more than 50 percent of their purchases from companies operating in the United States.

The amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization Act was authored by Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., when he chaired the House Small Business Committee Chairman. His amendment was stripped from the final defense appropriations act, according to Rich Carter, spokesperson for Rep. Manzullo.

The entire airframe, including the transmission for the VH-71, is built in Europe. The General Electric engine is built is the U.S., Scully said.

Opponents of the program said the plush, electronically enhanced VH-71 is flying in the face of an eighty-year old law called the “Buy American Act.” That obscure law was passed in the Great Depression to restore America’s industrial base.

President Herbert Hoover signed the act into law in 1933 to ensure the United States government would use American made products whenever possible. The law has largely been circumvented by so-called “Memorandums of Understanding” to waive implementation of the law until now, Carter said.

Sikorsky Aircraft supporters including Manzullo and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., strongly criticized the inclusion of the British-Italian helicopter company AgustaWestland on the Lockheed team after losing the three-year competition for the contract. AgustaWestland is owned by Finmeccanica, Italy's second-largest industrial group. AgustaWestland will manufacture about a fifth of the new Marine One's components.

Lockheed says that suppliers in 41 states support the VH-71 program.

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