- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

“Semper Fidelis,” the official motto of the U.S. Marine Corps, means “Always Faithful” - an expression of loyalty and commitment to our Marine comrades in arms. In the spirit of our motto, “Semper Fi,” I am concerned over the current plan to terminate the VH-71 Marine One Presidential Helicopter program.

I had the privilege of flying the president of the United States during my time as commander of the Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). The Marine One helicopter is no more a typical VIP helicopter than Air Force One is a typical Boeing 747. Protecting the safety and security of the commander in chief is a tremendously important national-security obligation. It is a huge mistake to think of the Marine One helicopter as simply a presidential perk; it is a vital piece of sophisticated military hardware to serve the Office of the President, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.

The current aircraft serving the president are approaching their fifth decade of service, predating Sept. 11, 2001. Sadly, the world is different today than it was in the 1970s, when the aircraft entered service. Newer aircraft, such as the VH-71 offer modern safety features, such as the ability to fly away even if the aircraft loses an engine - a requirement that did not exist in the 1960s and ‘70s.

In addition to added safety and increased performance, the VH-71 offers modern security features that are appropriate for the current operational environment.

In this Marine’s humble opinion, there is no place for politics when it comes to protecting the president, but unfortunately, the VH-71 is ensnarled in a political debate: How can the president fly in an expensive new helicopter in this economy when he is asking others to make sacrifices? Pentagon and congressional leaders should not allow the president to be in this position. It should not be his decision - he must be protected, and it is hard to put a price tag on that protection.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is right to raise issue with the growth in requirements and the escalating costs of the program. But the VH-71 is the helicopter the Navy and Pentagon purchased after an open and heated competition, and the American taxpayer already has invested more than $3 billion in the program. Multiple Defense Department and Navy program reviews have continued to identify the VH-71 as the correct helicopter for this mission. Nine helicopters have been built and flown and are in the final stages of testing, integration and evaluation. The VH-71 is an excellent helicopter and the right one for the job because it is both mature and modern - an important balance - offering the benefits of advanced technology, safety and security in a proven military platform.

Even when announcing the termination of the VH-71 program, Mr. Gates said the president needs a new helicopter and that the Pentagon would start a review of the requirements. It seems there is a reasonable approach that is being overlooked: Evaluate the requirements for future VH-71 purchases without canceling the existing program.

It is important to remember that the first phase of the VH-71, even before you get to the more robust increment, is significantly better than the current operational aircraft.

It is my hope that good ol’ common sense will prevail in this debate and that Congress and the Pentagon will do the right thing from both national-security and fiscal-responsibility standpoints. We have an obligation to protect the safety and security of our president - period. While terminating the VH-71 might serve some use politically, it is an unwise decision when you consider the facts and potential implications. Semper Fi.

Retired Lt. Col. Richard Eugene Peasley is a former commander of the Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1).

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