- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

Two U.S. defense contractors are appealing to the hearts of politicians and the minds of the Navy as they vie to build a new fleet of helicopters for the White House.

Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft are both fighting to win a U.S. Navy project to make the next generation of Marine One aircraft, the designation given helicopters used to transport presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The initial project would be worth about $2.7 billion to produce 23 aircraft through 2009, said John Milliman, public-affairs officer for the presidential helicopter program at the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md.

But the even bigger payoff would be bragging rights — manufacturing an iconic aircraft for the leader of the free world — and a chance to win even more lucrative contracts worth billions more with U.S. and foreign militaries.

“The value of the program is not just this program. The air vehicle … will be the opening shot for a U.S. Air Force competition for around 130 aircraft,” said Nick Lappos, Sikorsky’s program director for the VH-92, the company name for its version of the presidential helicopter. “The winner gets a leg up on the competition.”

Both companies say their product would be the best replacement for the current, aging fleet of Marine One helicopters as a mobile executive office. Neither is certain who will win the competition. The Navy is expected to make a final decision in late January, although the awarding of the contract has been delayed twice.

In the meantime, each company is extolling not just the virtues of its helicopter, but how patriotic its product is.

Sikorsky, based in Stratford, Conn., and owned by United Technologies, stocks the current Marine One fleet with its Sea King aircraft and hopes to continue that tradition with the VH-92.

Sikorsky bills itself as the All-American choice and has been quick to note that Lockheed’s proposal for Marine One is made in partnership with AgustaWestland, a European firm with its main operations in Cascina Costa, Italy, and Yeovil, England.

“The Lockheed people will have Italian workers making the rotor blades, should Lockheed win,” Mr. Lappos said.

Lockheed, headquartered in Bethesda, says the argument about American content is misleading.

“We don’t believe the helicopter should not be selected because of participation of our allies,” said Stephen D. Ramsey, Lockheed vice president and general manager for the US101, the company name for its Marine One proposal.

In fact, it’s hard to find better allies than Britain and Italy, two countries that supported the United States with boots on the ground in Iraq, Mr. Ramsey said from the company’s Owego, N.Y., offices.

“I think the xenophobic approach is counterproductive to the process and doesn’t serve anyone well,” said Stephen Moss, president of AgustaWestland’s U.S. subsidiary. The company is consolidating its U.S. offices in Reston.

In the complex world of defense contracting, it is unlikely that either helicopter would be 100 percent American.

“It is hard to find in the defense industry a purely American defense product. I suspect if you dig deep enough into any system, you will find some sort of foreign component,” said Pierre Chao, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C. think tank.

The companies rely on hundreds of subcontractors for major components such as engines and minor pieces such as fasteners.

Lockheed, in fact, doesn’t specialize in manufacturing helicopters. That’s why it has partnered with Sikorsky on past projects and why Agusta-Westland and Texas-based Bell Helicopter are part of its Marine One team.

Lockheed instead focuses on systems integration, bringing the pieces together and installing high-tech equipment to make it all work, a capability valued by the Navy.

“What we are looking for is a [helicopter] platform that is in production that we don’t have to do much development on the airframe, so we can devote energy and resources to systems that go aboard,” Mr. Milliman said.

Sikorsky says it’s not just about American content, but about controlling production on behalf of the president’s safety.

The company also wants the research funding for new systems to flow to Connecticut.

“The question is not buy American; it is whether you invest American,” Mr. Lappos said.

Many have weighed in, from British Prime Minister Tony Blair on behalf of AgustaWestland to the entire Connecticut congressional contingent on behalf of Sikorsky.

“So the US101 might offer opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation,” Mr. Blair wrote to the president in January 2003.

The Connecticut group added their opinion this month.

“We … wish to express our concern about potential vulnerabilities to the presidential helicopter fleet should Marine One be produced with international components,” two senators and five representatives said in a letter to President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Navy Secretary Gordon R. England.

All the attention and rhetoric might affect the final decision, though not the way either company intended.

“It does encourage, if not force, the Navy to be as apolitical and as technically based in their decision as possible,” Mr. Chao said.

“I suspect the delays are about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s so that anyone can follow their reasoning and reach the same conclusion,” he said.

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