Pared-Down Helicopters Cost Less, But Navy Fears They Won’t Last Long

March 20th, 2009  
Team Infidel

Topic: Pared-Down Helicopters Cost Less, But Navy Fears They Won’t Last Long

CQ Today
March 20, 2009
By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff
With the costs of a proposed fleet of presidential helicopters soaring, a growing chorus in Congress is calling for refocusing the program to produce a less expensive, interim model. But the Navy estimates the interim version might need to be replaced in as little as five years, raising questions about cost-effectiveness.
However, corporate executives who work on the VH-71 helicopter program strongly dispute the Navy’s estimate, and experts in Congress and elsewhere find it hard to believe a helicopter’s life could be so short.
The Navy has hired a team of companies led by Lockheed Martin Corp. to build five of the initial “Increment 1” models, followed by 23 “Increment 2” versions, which would have more sophisticated equipment and an upgraded engine.
But the program’s cost has doubled to about $13 billion, and while the initial aircraft are being built and are supposed to become operational in fiscal 2012, the second wave is on hold.
President Obama has said the VH-71 program exemplifies military procurement “gone amok.”
Lockheed Martin has floated the idea of building only the initial version of the helicopters for little more than half the currently estimated price of the more ambitious program. The company said it could deliver 19 of the helicopters for $6.8 billion, about $3 billion of which has already been spent.
Several senior members of Congress agree with this cost estimate and approach. They include John P. Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Thirteen other House members, including some on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees, wrote Obama on March 16 urging him to consider the option.
But a briefing prepared last month by the Navy’s VH-71 program office says the Naval Air Systems Command’s analysis to date indicates the initial model’s service life is about 1,500 hours, or five years, based on how much the presidential helicopters fly. The goal is to fly the first helicopters for 3,000 hours, or about a decade, the program office said, but it cautioned that a decade is “not guaranteed” and depends upon testing the helicopter’s response to stress and how the aircraft is used.
A Defense Department official said the helicopter “was designed for a 3,000-hour service life,” adding that the service life estimate is “specific to that helicopter’s requirements,” meaning it was the product of factors including the airframe’s strength, what it carries and how it is expected to operate.
A congressional aide who tracks the program said the cost-effectiveness of the proposed Increment 1 option was a valid concern given the Navy’s estimate of the helicopter’s service life.
“I would say, at this point, it’s a congressional concern based on the current Navy posture,” said the aide, who does not work for a Congress member allied with Lockheed Martin or its competitor, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.
Differing Estimates
Estimates of an aircraft’s service life usually grow as test data comes in, experts said. But even if the initial choppers last twice as long as the Navy predicts, their longevity is dwarfed by the current fleet of White House helicopters. The existing VH-60N and VH-3D helicopters are 21 and 35 years old, respectively, and with planned life-extension programs, they are expected to last up to almost 50 years.
To some on Capitol Hill, the years left on the current helicopters raise the question of why a new one is needed at all. But the White House and Pentagon determined a new helicopter was needed to carry necessary defensive and communications equipment, fly at longer ranges, and better survive a crash or nuclear war.
Company executives involved in the program disagree with the Navy’s VH-71 longevity estimates. According to the executives, the VH-71 is based on the EH-101, which has been certified to last at least 10,000 hours, or more than 30 years, by the Federal Aviation Administration, the British Ministry of Defense and others. A spokesman for Murtha concurred with the 30-year estimate.
“Based on the EH-101 history and current flight test data already available, we have great confidence the VH-71A life will meet or exceed 10,000 flight hours to allow it to serve as Marine One for at least 30 years,” said Ellen Mitchell, acting director of communications and public affairs at Lockheed Martin Systems Integration in Owego, N.Y.
An Imperfect Comparison
The VH-71 is not the same as the EH-101, however, because it has been adapted for the White House mission.
“The contractor is basing their speculation off the past performance and service-life data of the EH-101, a commercial variant helo,” the congressional aide wrote in an e-mail. “The Navy is basing their engineering analysis (on paper only at this point) on the commercial variant that has now become a militarized version and the structural enhancements that have been completed for survivability of the platform. Whether or not the Navy is being overly conservative or Lockheed Martin is being too generous is to be determined.”
One of the issues affecting the helicopter’s projected lifespan is the weight of all the gear it carries, the Defense official said.
“Weight growth has negatively affected the projected performance of the Increment 1 aircraft and could affect the program’s ability to meet the range requirement for Increment 2,” the Government Accountability Office reported in 2008.
The Senate Armed Services Committee report accompanying its fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill (PL 110-417) said technical problems have contributed to the short service life of Increment 1.
“The committee is aware that the VH-71A program has encountered significant challenges associated with modifying the selected commercial aircraft to meet the cost and schedule requirements for Increment 1,” it said. “As a result, the Navy plans for only limited employment of Increment 1 aircraft due to expectations that the service life of these helicopters will be limited.”
Tom Christie, who was the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester when the VH-71 program was launched, said that while initial service-life estimates are typically conservative, he had never heard of an aircraft having so short a lifespan and could not imagine the Pentagon buying such a perishable product.
But, he added, until the service-life question is resolved, the value of buying Increment 1 aircraft is open to debate. “It is an important consideration,” Christie said.
Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, said an independent audit is needed to sort out the issue. “Given that there’s no hurry, it could make sense to identify what are the costs to suspend the entire program and make an objectively informed decision,” he said.

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