Contenders for New Presidential Helicopter Lining Up

Earlier this century the Pentagon started a program managed by the Navy and Marine Corps to replace the existing helicopters used to transport the President. Currently a mix of Sikorsky, part of United Technologies (UTX), made VH-3 and VH-60 aircraft are used. Some of them are now over 40 years old. It was felt that a new system was needed that was more efficient, capable and equipped with modern communication equipment. This was the VH-71 program.

The VH-71 planned to use an aircraft from Augusta Westland modified by prime contractor Lockheed Martin (LMT). The program was to proceed in two stages with a few aircraft bought early to test and integrate modifications. This proceeded with several aircraft purchased and modified. The problems arose as the requirements for the second effort changed considerably over time leading to schedule and cost growth. By 2009 the program was several billion dollars over budget and was cancelled by the Obama Administration as part of their defense reforms.

A draft RFP was released this week for the new program. It plans to save money and manage schedule by requiring the use of an existing, in production aircraft which will be modified. It is requesting that the bidders plan to minimize changes to expensive parts of the aircraft such as the power train, transmission, structure and rotor system. A communication system is being developed separately that will be integrated onto the new aircraft.

The VH-71 suffered as the requirements meant new major systems had to be developed and integrated to meet power, range and hovering capability requirements. The RFP is for 23 aircraft at a cost of just under $1 billion with the first ones entering service in 2020.

Currently teams made up of Sikorsky and Lockheed and Augusta Westland and Northrop Grumman (NOC) are interested. Boeing (BA) may propose after doing analysis as to whether their large CH-47 or V-22 tilt rotor aircraft may meet the requirements.

The VXX program is aggressive in that it hopes to contain cost, schedule and technical creep. As the VH-71 program indicated it may be hard to do this. With the expected defense cuts coming up the contract is very attractive not only due to its size but also the prestige. As with other large aviation programs the winner may also expect several decades worth of support contracts which could be worth billions.

Photo from dailymatador’s flickr photostream.

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Boeing’s FCS Spin-offs Faces Struggles

The U.S. Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) was to be their next family of battlefield vehicles as well as different communication and data link systems supported by unmanned ground and aerial vehicles. It would ultimately replace the current M1/M2 heavy armored team in use since the Eighties. The program was led by a team of Boeing (BA) and SAIC (SAIC).

When the new Obama administration came in in 2008 one of its defense reforms led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was to cancel the program. This was due to cost and schedule issues and the fact that the requirements did not reflect the current combat conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the main program was canceled some of its components were continued including Boeing’s Network Integration Kit.

This system is a data link used to connect vehicles within the brigade to aid them in monitoring the tactical situation. One of the key parts of FCS was to use advanced communications and C4ISR systems to improve battlefield knowledge and the Kit was a component of that.

Unfortunately the Defense Department has released results of recent testing of the Kit and it has not performed as well as they hoped. Although to be fair to Boeing and the Project Office the testing is early in the program and finding out issues like this is why testing is done.

The systems tested cost on average close to $1 million a vehicle kit and each brigade is supposed to get 81 of them. The price goal is less then half that. The testing will be part of the consideration of the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) as it meets to consider continuing the program.

Boeing is continuing development of the NIK and is currently building systems to equip one brigade. The Army is deciding whether to begin production of the two more sets for another two brigades.

In the current budgetary situation where the Pentagon is being squeezed to reduce funding programs that are having cost, schedule or performance issues may be easy targets to get cut. At the same time as with the EFV there remains requirements for these programs and ending this attempt may just be one step on to starting up another one.

If the NIK is canceled then the Army and Boeing will have little left to show for all of the time, effort and money spend on FCS.

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U.S. Investment in Lasers Starting to Pay Off

The idea of laser weapons has been a fixture of science fiction novels and movies. The idea of an almost unlimited range and power weapon using light has caught the imagination of people for decades. Now different U.S. defense contractors working for a variety of customers are starting to see some accomplishments in this area.

Raytheon (RTN) has begun testing a point defense system for use on U.S. Navy ships that successfully engaged drones and destroyed them in an at-sea test. The electric powered system is mounted on a Phalanx weapon system that currently provides close in defense against missiles using a 20 mm gatling gun. There are reports that Raytheon will be using a similar system as part of a proposed defensive system for U.S. Army helicopters designed to protect against infra-red guided surface-to-air missiles.

Boeing (BA) has been developing a light weight laser system to defend against weapons such as the artillery, mortars and rockets. The High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD) will be integrated onto an Army standard HEMTT transport vehicle. This truck made by Oshkosh (OSK) will have Boeing’s beam control system installed to support further testing in 2011.

One of the oldest laser “weapon” programs in development by the United States has been the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB). This mounts a high power chemical laser onto a modified Boeing 747. The system when it enters service will be used to engage theater ballistic missiles to provide missile defense. The overall program is supported by Lockheed Martin (LM) who make the Beam Control/Fire Control System. This provides fire control for the Northrop Grumman (NOC) produced laser that is used to destroy the target. The ABLT had success in tests earlier this year but the program has been scaled back significantly by the Obama Administration as part of their defense reforms.

These systems demonstrate that the focus of current U.S. research and development is on defensive systems to protect troops, ships and aircraft. The ALTB is also a defensive weapon but scaled up to destroy ballistic missiles. The footprint of the laser systems and their need for decent amounts of power and chemicals dictate that the vehicle and ship mounted systems be short ranged.

As more data and experience is gathered with these types of systems they can be increased in power and capability and ultimately perform more missions. The end game should be the development of some sort of offensive weapon that will replace artillery and potentially small arms and infantry support weapons. Then it will be like the laser guns of science fiction novels and movies.

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How Much Money Did Canceling the VH-71 Save?

Update — The Associated Press and other media corrected this report to say that it was an extension of a contract worth $8.4 million. The total contract value with the extension is over $8 billion. The point stands that there will be a cost associated with keeping the aging systems working while a new system is developed.

One of the programs that was ended as part of the Obama and Gate’s defense reforms was the new Presidential Transport helicopter. Lockheed Martin (LMT) and its Italian partner, Finmeccanica, had won the contract to build a new helicopter to ferry the President around replacing a fleet of venerable VH-3 and VH-60 aircraft made by Sikorsky (UTC). The program had faced cost and schedule issues due to massive requirements creep that caused the total cost to balloon. In 2009 the Navy pulled the plug on the program and started over.

Because a whole new program began it meant that the existing aircraft would need to extend their planned service lives. Some in Congress, especially Congressman Hinchey (D-NY), who represented the area where Lockheed Martin was doing the work on the program argued that this decision could end up being more expensive then continuing the existing program. Lockheed and Finmeccanica did offer a reduced cost program utilizing the aircraft already purchased that could meet some of the requirements but not all of them. One aspect that was raised that there would be a cost related to continuing the use of the older aircraft as they would need to be maintained and modified to stay in use.

Today the Defense Department announced that they were awarding Sikorsky a contract to carry out “VH-3D executive helicopter special progressive aircraft rework induction.” This means money to overhaul and update the current fleet of VH-3 aircraft. The estimated value of this contract is over $8 billion. This is money that is needed because the President’s aircraft must be maintained to the highest standard.

This does illustrate that in some ways Congressman Hinchey was right. The money saved by ending the VH-71 will now go to keeping the older aircraft flying and starting the new program. Eight billion dollars will buy you a great deal of helicopters and capability. Not neccessarily what you wanted in the VH-71 but certainly it would go a long way to meeting the needs of that program.

Penny wise and pound foolish as my Nana use to say.

Photo from sophiea’s flickr photostream.

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