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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Rotorcraft Report: VH-71 Managers Thrift-Minded

MILITARY | VIP

The fact that the U.S. Navy’s VH-71 presidential helicopter program has exceeded its $6.1 billion budget by more than 50 percent does not mean that the program’s managers have been spending cash freely. In fact, "they have done a number of things to try and avoid getting to this point," said Lt Commander Victor Chen, the Navy’s public affairs officer for research, development and acquisition. These steps include independent reviews of the program to find and implement cost-cutting moves and "monthly cost/performance evaluations with the contractor," he told Rotor & Wing.

So why is a fleet of 28 helicopters that was baselined at $6.1 billion now expected to cost $11.2 billion? The answer lies in the VH-71 specifications. Both the five ‘Increment One’ and 23 ‘Increment Two’ versions of the VH-71 must carry a full range of security equipment and advanced technology aloft along with 14 people, and do it all while providing a minimum range of 280 nm. This is simply more than the basic VH-71 aircraft — derived from the AgustaWestland EH101/AW101 — is capable of doing. In fact, the first five Increment One VH-71s only have a range of 150 nm, thanks to the weight onboard. This is why the Increment Two VH-71s need their 2,500 shaft horsepower CT7-8E engines to be boosted to 3,000 shaft horsepower.

Hence the reason that the VH-71 program is so far over budget, and why Lt Commander Chen justifies the expense to date by saying, "I think it’s important to remember that, from the beginning, this program carried more risk than normal due to the security environment created by 9/11." This argument will likely come to the fore when Congress reviews the VH-71 program under the provisions of the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment. This law gives the legislative branch authority to kill programs that exceed their costs by 25 percent, unless convinced not to by the Secretary of Defense. Since the need for an advanced presidential helicopter has long been accepted by Congress, and since there is no three-engine alternative to the VH-71 in the wings, chances are that the program will survive despite its budget problems.

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