Monday, September 20, 2004

You may not be aware of it, but there are actually two presidential campaigns underway this year. Despite little attention from pollsters, pundits or the political parties, the increasingly heated competition to determine who will build the next fleet of helicopters for presidential service is still important in terms of both symbolism and substance.

For the first time ever, Marine One, the official helicopter of every president since Eisenhower, faces a real possibility of being built by a foreign manufacturer. I don’t know about you, but when I learned of this I scratched my head in baffled disbelief. Shouldn’t the president of the United States fly in an American-made helicopter?

Why would the Department of Defense even consider relying on Italy’s AgustaWestland to design, build and maintain such an important symbol of American pride, strength and security?

At one point, the answer to this question seemed quite clear and simple. In January of last year, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a personal plea to President Bush on behalf of the British company GKN, then a half-share owner of AugustaWestland. Mr. Blair asked Mr. Bush to “look favorably” upon the company’s bid — clearly a tacit request for at least some form of political payback for Britain’s support in the Iraq war.

With GKN’s recent sale of AgustaWestland to Italy’s Finmeccanica, this quid pro quo for Britain’s support may no longer be a factor in the awarding of this prestigious contract. I contend it never should have been. We also should consider Italy and its history of “support” for the United States — from their refusal to support President Reagan in the 1986 strike against Libya, to its refusal to allow U.S. F-117s to base at Italy’s Aviano NATO airbase. Perhaps we might have gotten a more sympathetic response from another of the 59 governments that have led Italy over the past 58 years, but is that really the kind of track record of support we want to rely upon for technical guidance and parts for our military, let alone our president?

Putting aside all-American pride, there are some very real reasons why granting this contract to a European-led consortium would be irresponsible, even risky.

First, this contract is about far more than procuring a fleet of 23 helicopters for presidential service — it’s about the future of the American helicopter industry. The multi-millions of dollars in research and development funding that accompanies this contract will effectively determine who controls the future of advanced helicopter technology for decades to come, in this case either the Sikorsky Aircraft, the U.S.-based incumbent, or AgustaWestland. Winning this prestigious contract will provide the victor with a substantial edge to win additional U.S. military contracts and lead international sales, since it will possess the latest and greatest rotorcraft in the world.

Healthy competition is one thing, but sending our tax dollars to a European Union-subsidized aerospace manufacturer in order to help them leapfrog ahead of America’s technological edge is simply wrong. As Bell Helicopter’s CEO, John Murphey, ironically warned the House Armed Services Committee last year, before his company teamed with AgustaWestland, we run a serious risk of relegating the U.S. helicopter industry into subcontractors for European manufacturers.

Second, on the issue of safety there simply is no competition between these companies and their aircrafts. Sikorsky, the American company that invented the helicopter industry, has a proven, award-winning track record of building some of the world’s safest aircraft. Its Marine One offering is built upon the unmatched, combat-proven design of the Black Hawk helicopter — the Army’s all-time safest, most reliable helicopter fleet. Even this base model is the only helicopter in its class to meet the latest, most stringent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards. It’s no wonder then why an FAA Regional Administrator called Sikorsky’s aircraft “the world’s safest helicopter.”

Third, and equally important given the capacity in which these helicopters will be operating, are the security concerns raised by the involvement of foreign manufacturers. Under current law, the security clearance necessary to manufacture and maintain Marine One not only requires U.S. citizenship and “unquestionable loyalty to the United States,” but even prohibits Marine One team members from being married to citizens of another country. Is the Department of Defense actually going to lower our security standards in today’s risky environment?

The European aerospace industry has long sought to infiltrate the American market. While I would contend the United States remains the world leader in this area, competition can’t hurt. But when we are talking about building the official fleet of helicopters for the president of the United States, that’s a job I think most of us can agree should remain in trusted, American hands.

Sen. Malcolm Wallop, Wyoming Republican, is chairman of Frontiers of Freedom.

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