By / January 13, 2003

At the urging of White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, the Pentagon is accelerating efforts to replace the aging Marine Corps helicopters that transport President Bush while at home and abroad.

"Marine One" is the call sign used whenever the elite helicopter squadron HMX-1 transports the president, frequently in a Sikorsky-made VH-3D Sea King. But these olive and ivory airframes, symbols of power and prestige, are getting old. And given the post-Sept. 11 security environment, Card wants a replacement aircraft called VXX to be developed years sooner than previously expected, according to a missive he sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Nov. 26, 2002.

At press time, HMX-1 declined to say how many executive transport "VH" helicopters are in service, citing security reasons. But as of 1996, HMX-1 had a total of 19 such aircraft: 11 VH-3D and eight VH-60N airframes, according to The first version of the Sea King was flown roughly four decades ago.

"According to my understanding the [VH-3D] aircraft is scheduled for retirement no later than 2014, with the identification process for its replacement to commence later this year," Card writes. "In the interim, I am concerned about identified VH-3D maintenance and performance deficiencies that directly impact the ability to provide requisite level of support to the president. We should aim for an acceleration of that timeline, given the obvious imperatives associated with travel for the president."

In 1999, the Navy and Marine Corps wrote a requirement to develop an initial operational capability for VXX by FY-09 and a full operational capability by FY-12. But the full operational capability goal was delayed until FY-14. Card does not use the terms "initial" or "full" but he proposes the Pentagon develop capable VXX aircraft by 2007.

"I believe a realistic and achievable goal should be to have operational capability for the replacement aircraft by 2007 and look forward to your support and cooperation in achieving that goal," Card writes. A Pentagon source said the White House was irritated by occasions when a helicopter was not fully functional and a backup had to be used. The missive's 2007 goal was a "shot across the bow," the source said. The Pentagon got the message, but defense officials believe 2010 is the earliest a replacement could be fielded, said the source.

Copies of Card's letter were also sent to Mitchell Daniels, head of the Office of Management and Budget, and Joseph Hagin, the White House's deputy chief of staff for operations. Card asserted costs associated with the VXX acceleration "would and should be funded above the line" for the Pentagon, meaning money should be added to the defense budget. Responding to OMB directions, Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim has added $1.2 billion to the Navy's FY-04 to FY-09 budget to accelerate the VXX program. That money, spread evenly over six years in $200 million increments, was added in a program budget decision Zakheim approved Jan. 6, budget documents indicate.

No design has been selected for the replacement aircraft, but it is likely to be based on an existing, proven design and there are few candidates available. Contenders include Sikorsky's S-92 helicopter and a version of AgustaWestland's EH-101 that would be manufactured in the United States. The V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, made by Boeing and Bell Helicopter Textron, is also considered a potential candidate for the executive transport mission. But following two fatal mishaps in 2000, the fate of the V-22 remains to be determined by an ongoing flight test program.

"The problem you're going to have with any of these three aircraft is they are going to blow the Rose Garden away because they all have a horrendous downdraft compared to what they are doing with the H-3," the Pentagon source noted. Asked if there were other options, the source conceded, "There aren't too many alternatives around."

As soon as this week, the Pentagon might publish notices soliciting information from industry about VXX while asking the makers of the S-92, the EH-101 and the V-22 to produce brief study papers over a period of three months, a source tracking the issue said.

None of the three candidates has racked up numerous flight hours, but Sikorsky and AgustaWestland have other advantages, the industry observer said. Developing and maintaining the unique, secure facilities and operations needed to support the executive transport mission is a tremendous burden, said the industry observer. Sikorsky has the advantage of already having in place such facilities and processes, but the EH-101 is probably closer to what HMX-1 will want in terms of power and payload capabilities, the industry observer predicted.

At press time, Sikorsky spokeswoman Sheena Steiner said no company officials were available to talk about the S-92. But on Dec. 19, the company announced the S-92 had achieved Federal Aviation Administration type certification, with 1,570 test flight hours "under the most stringent rotorcraft safety requirements imposed to date." In a press release, Nick Lappos, the S-92 program director, said, "Our type certification and safety capabilities place us a full generation ahead of other medium helicopters in the marketplace."

The S-92 is not a totally unproven design, said Paul Nisbet, an industry analyst with JSA Research in Newport, RI. Rather, it is basically a civilian version of Sikorksy's Blackhawk helicopter, he said. "And that certainly has to count for something," he said. Plus, it would have a recognized profile that would look like a U.S. helicopter, he said. "And I can't imagine having one that didn't look like a U.S. helicopter for the president," he said.

AgustaWestland and Lockheed Martin are developing a U.S. variant of the EH-101. Within 30 days, it will be decided whether Boeing, Kaman or Bell will build the U.S. airframe, said Stephen Moss, president of AgustaWestland.

"We are able to provide HMX-1 a fully operational helicopter within the timeframe required," Moss said. If put under contract in 2003, the company could develop a helicopter with initial operational capability by FY-07, Moss said. EH-101 aircraft worldwide have logged over 32,000 hours, he said. Moss said the aircraft is a proven, safe platform with "tremendous" growth capability and "excellent" power margins. A U.S. version of the EH-101 can be delivered within 36 months of an order, he said.

"I believe the White House will do what's best for the president," Moss said.

In terms of international sales, AgustaWestland has had more success selling the EH-101 than Sikorsky has had selling the S-92, Nisbet said. But he said it was unlikely the United States would buy a European helicopter for the executive transport mission.

"I don't think they'd do that," Nisbet said. "I could be wrong." Even if the EH-101 were built in the United States, picking it would be perceived as selecting a European helicopter over capable U.S. candidates, he said. "It would be like the president having his airplane an [Airbus ] A340," he said.

V-22 proponents see the Osprey as a contender for the mission, arguing tiltrotors are the way of the future.

"In 30 years do we really still want to just be flying conventional helicopters?" said one such proponent. Bell spokesman Bob Leder said Bell and Boeing believe the V-22 to be "an excellent candidate" for the executive transport role, given its speed, range and vertical-takeoff-and-landing capabilities.

Nisbet said the V-22 would have to prove itself before it could be seriously considered as a VXX candidate.

"I think that one would have to be proven because that is a radical new design and obviously it's had a very spotty test history so far," he said. "I think maybe 10 years from now, but not anytime soon. That would be too risky, I think." -- Christopher J. Castelli