President's new copter a matter of much debate

Rivals for contract talking patriotism, security, jobs

October 29, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

A presidential contest of rare combativeness has spilled into the airwaves and subways of Washington, sparking a pitched debate over matters of patriotism, national security, finances and jobs. The campaign has nothing to do with who will live in the White House, but rather what kind of helicopter its future residents will fly.

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., the incumbent, is promising to save American jobs and contain government spending if the Navy selects its VH-92 as the president's newest helicopter. Lockheed Martin Corp., the challenger, is proposing an aircraft built with Italian and British partners, offering the Pentagon a chance to let favored allies share in the $2 billion contract.

Analysts say either company would undoubtedly build the president an exceptional helicopter - or, more precisely, a fleet of about two dozen exceptional aircraft, any one of which would fly under the designation Marine One when the nation's chief executive was aboard.

But as evidenced by the abundance of radio commercials, subway posters and full-page ads hawking the helicopters throughout Washington, the contest has become more than a mere fly-off as the mid-December selection day approaches. It has also taken on a political and diplomatic overtone all but unheard of for such a relatively modest Pentagon purchase.

Politics and a deal

British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent President Bush a letter last year urging him to "look favourably" on Lockheed's part-British machine. And Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has lobbied the president personally, according to accounts in the European press.

Meanwhile, Congress' Government Accountability Office, acting on a request from a congressman in Sikorsky's home state of Connecticut, plans a study to determine whether foreign construction partners such as Lockheed's pose a security risk.

The Pentagon had hoped to pick a winner last spring but delayed a decision so the companies could refine their proposals, a move that many analysts say betrays the deal's unique political complexities during an election year.

"Between Blair's letter and the decision to delay a selection until after the elections, I'd say you have a bit of a smoking gun," said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. "This has become as politicized as any defense contract I can remember.

"I assume the Department of Defense is also paying attention to the technical merits of the two aircraft."

An aging fleet

There is one - and perhaps only one - point upon which everyone involved seems to agree: The president of the United States needs a new ride.

The current fleet of Sikorsky VH-3D helicopters, originally fielded in 1961 as an anti-submarine aircraft, is aging and outdated. While it has given faithful and often conspicuous service for four decades - President Richard M. Nixon's final wave came from the door of a VH-3D - the craft is simply too old and too small for the president's modern needs, analysts say.

The Superhawk

Sikorsky would seem an obvious candidate to build a replacement. Besides building and maintaining the existing Marine One fleet, the company also makes the Pentagon's workhorse UH-60 Black Hawk. Its offering for the presidential fleet, an oversized craft called the VH-92 Superhawk, is a Black Hawk cousin, with many of the same basic features along with modern safety upgrades.

"The core of this thing comes down to who can build the safest and most efficient helicopter for the president of the United States," said Nicholas D. Lappos, program manager for Sikorsky's Marine One bid. "And we have the safest and most efficient helicopter in the world."

`Oval Office in the sky'

Still, Lockheed Martin is raising eyebrows with its offer to supply a much larger helicopter, the US101, built on the platform of the European EH101 made by its partner, Anglo-Italian manufacturer AgustaWestland. The US101 is slower, heavier and more expensive than the Sikorsky - none of which are considered critical shortcomings for what is, essentially, a luxury transport, analysts say.

The three-engine US101 offers more interior space - just how much is in dispute - and a cabin layout touted as an "Oval Office in the sky." And unlike its competitor, the 101 is a proven aircraft in service with Britain's Royal Navy. Sikorsky's entry, a winner of the annual Collier Trophy awarded to America's most significant achievement in aeronautics, is nonetheless a new design, flown mostly as a demonstrator.

Politics of flight

But for all the debate that the two designs can provoke, the elements that have thrust the contest into prominence have little to do with the helicopters' capabilities and everything to do with the politics surrounding them. Like few Pentagon contests before, the race for the Marine One contract has evolved into a public spat between two large U.S. defense contractors, each trying to look more American than the other.

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