Friday, October 9, 2009

Wire: Pentagon Returns Fire Over Presidential Choppers

Off the Wire

Off the Wire:

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9, 2009 -- Newswire services this evening reported that the Pentagon fired back at a New York congressman Friday, saying that a cost estimate Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) used for a new effort to build a presidential helicopter doesn't "comport with reality."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) flagged the helicopter program as an example of wasteful spending during a February meeting at the White House. McCain argued that because of cost overruns, a Marine One helicopter would cost more than Air Force One. The president and the defense secretary agreed, canceling the $13-billion program in this year's budget.

But Hinchey, who represents the district where Lockheed Martin would build the helicopters, is pressing House and Senate appropriators to approve $485 million to finish off five of the VH-71 helicopters that the Pentagon has stopped working on.

Obama has threatened to veto the bill if the funding is included.

Hunchey, citing an October 2009 Congressional Research Service report based on internal Navy documents, contends that the Pentagon will spend up to $15 billion more and take until 2024 to design and build a new fleet of presidential helicopters and extend the life of the existing fleet, instead of finishing work on the VH-71 helicopters, The Politico reported today.

The Pentagon was quick to disagree.

"The notion that we are somehow considering a follow-on program to the VH-71 that would cost $20 billion is simply not true," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "We are not going to pursue a program that will cost more than the current program."

The helicopter program, intended to replace the current fleet of presidential helicopters, was originally designed to provide 23 helicopters at a cost of $6.5 billion.

The Reuters news service said the helicopter, which Lockheed Martin intended to build in partnership with AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica SpA, had fallen six years behind schedule and its estimated price tag had soared to more than $13 billion.

Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, which made the existing presidential helicopters, had lost the competition to the Lockheed team.

Morrell said the Pentagon was still in the initial stages of working through what the follow-on program should look like.

Some options have been laid out, Morrell said, but added: "None of those options comes close to the $20 billion figure, and frankly, for that matter, none of them comes close to the cost of the canceled program."

Morrell said he was correcting "misinformation" in news reports following comments by a New York lawmaker, Representative Maurice Hinchey, who said the replacement to the canceled Lockheed program would offer nearly the same capabilities but cost three times more and take longer to deliver.
Hinchey’s spokesman Jeff Lieberson dismissed Morrell’s comments as "hogwash."

Lieberson said, "We’re headed to conference next week," referring to the meeting that will decide what's in the final defense appropriations bill, The Politico reported. "This is certainly raising some important issues."

(Report from newswire sources.)

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