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Presidential Choppers Get an Upgrade

by Michael Tasselmyer / /

You've probably seen plenty of photographs of Marine One, the President's specially outfitted Naval helicopter, taking off from the South Lawn of the White House and soaring over D.C. to wherever the Chief Executive's destination may be that day. But did you know that there are 19 of those choppers, and even after $3.2 billion worth of investment, they're still in need of upgrades?

That's the story being published by The Washington Post, which reports that the Navy is close to awarding a contract to upgrade the President's fleet of choppers (some of which are more than 40 years old). The job never got done last time because costs quickly escalated beyond what the government was willing to pay, forcing the Pentagon to cancel its purchasing plans in 2009 just after President Obama took office.

The program has only just begun, but already some defense specialists have some concerns:

"There appears to be only one bid on the project - led by the company that lost out last time - and some fear that the lack of competition could again lead to escalating costs. Another red flag: The Defense Department granted the Navy a waiver saying that bidders don't have to build prototypes, which can help to reduce cost and risks. ... While declining to provide a cost for the program, [the Navy] said it would be "significantly less" than the $13 billion price tag it reached before the previous contract was canceled. The first helicopters could be available by the end of 2020 "if everything goes ideally," [they] said."

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently defended the Navy's decision to not require a prototype, stating in a report that the costs to provide them would exceed any savings they might generate. Navy officials say they have done "due diligence" to ensure that the project is completed on time and within budget, with a focus on existing and proven technology. However, some lawmakers and defense watchdogs are worried that once the project begins, there would be nothing stopping the winning bidder from scaling up the scope of the construction plans beyond an initially proposed budget. As John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org put it to The Post, "[the contractor] will sell you as much helicopter as you're willing to pay for. And nothing is too good for the president."

The Navy is expected to announce the winning bidder within a few weeks, although officials would not comment on how many applications it had received for the project. It remains to be seen whether the Pentagon can learn from its past mistakes and keep the new process as open and transparent as it claims it will.