Plan for New Presidential Helicopter Hits Snag

The Pentagon's program to build a new, high-tech helicopter for the president has been plagued by cost overruns. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) pointed out Monday that the new helicopter could cost more than Air Force One.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama is looking for ways to cut the budget. Yesterday, his former rival for the presidency, Senator John McCain, suggested he look no further than the White House lawn.

NORRIS: Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers enormous amount of money.

BLOCK: And the president didn't disagree.

P: The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

P: Of course, I've never had a helicopter before.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

P: You know, maybe I've been deprived, and I didn't know it. But I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amuck.

BLOCK: And joining us to talk about this pricey helicopter is Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, what's the history here?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, this all started after the September 11th attacks. White House officials went to the Pentagon and said, listen, the president needs a better helicopter, one that can protect him in a better way, and also one where he can have better communications, talk with anyone in the world from his helicopter.

And also, the current fleet is almost 40 years old, started flying during Gerald Ford's administration back in the mid-'70s, and they are getting to the end of their lifespan. They're looking at 2017, and that will be the end of these helicopters.

BLOCK: What else do they want this new helicopter to do?

BOWMAN: Well, I just talked with Loren Thompson. He's a defense analyst. He knows a lot about this program. And here's his list of what they want it to have.

D: Many of the things that are carried on the presidential helicopter are secret. However, what we do know is that it has extensive self-protection capabilities against surface-to-air missiles; that it has hundreds of pounds of very secret communications equipment so the president can stay in touch with foreign leaders where there's nuclear forces and so on; that it has a kitchen, it has a bathroom, it has seating for 14 people, and it has a multiperson crew.

BOWMAN: Now, it also has to be small enough to land in that tight confinement of the White House grounds. And the other thing, they want it to go farther. The current helicopter goes maybe 150 miles before it has to refuel. This one, they want to go 300 miles in the event of a nuclear attack.

BLOCK: And meantime, this helicopter - fleet of helicopters is over budget and overdue.

BOWMAN: That's right. What happened is they kept adding requirements to it. They want it to be able to prevent a missile attack, better communications and so forth. Even the seats had to be able to take nine G's in case it drops out of the sky, and it can protect people. And they've built five of these already, and the next line of 23 will have an even more equipment. And there's talk about adding a new engine to compensate for the added weight.

BLOCK: Why do they need 28?

BOWMAN: It's not only the president who will use these but also the vice president, some of the top leaders, Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And also, when the president goes around the country or overseas, they'll bring the helicopter along with him.

BLOCK: Now, when Senator John McCain says this is more expensive than Air Force One, is he right?

BOWMAN: Well, he is. In 1990, when they procured the two Air Force One planes, it was a total cost of $650 million, so roughly $325 million each. But a better comparison might be the F22 fighter, the Air Force's most sophisticated jet, and that cost roughly the same as one of these helicopters - around $400 million.

BLOCK: Well, what happens now? And Barack Obama said this is a procurement process run amock. Do they scrap it? What do they do?

BOWMAN: Well, it's a good question. Now, they have five now in flight testing. And they said Obama or someone else might be able to fly this in the next year and a half or so. So the question is, will they build the additional 23 with this added equipment? We don't know the answer to that yet. But the one thing we do know is the current fleet of helicopters is getting old, and they need some replacement.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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