WASHINGTON, April 6 (Reuters) - A new presidential helicopter, cited by President Barack Obama as a symbol of government spending run amok, became an early casualty on Monday in a new campaign to control costly Pentagon programs.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, unveiling his defense budget recommendations for fiscal year 2010, said he would terminate the Lockheed Martin Corp VH-71 helicopter program, criticized for cost-overruns that make it more expensive than Air Force One, the president’s high-tech Boeing 747.
The helicopter program was intended to replace the current fleet of “Marine One” presidential helicopters, known as VH-3s, that have been in service for a generation.
“This program was originally designed to provide 23 helicopters to support the president at a cost of $6.5 billion. Today, the program is estimated to cost over $13 billion, has fallen six years behind schedule, and runs the risk of not delivering the requested capability,” Gates told reporters.
He said the Pentagon planned to begin developing new options for a presidential helicopter soon.
None of the U.S. defense chief’s budget proposals has been endorsed by the White House or approved by Congress.
The VH-71 program’s costs were first pointed out to Obama by Republican Senator John McCain at a February forum held to look for ways to curb a $1.3 trillion U.S. deficit.
Obama assured McCain that eliminating waste would be the highest priority as the United States faces the worst economic crisis in decades.
Gates rejected the idea of a less sophisticated version of the VH-71, saying those aircraft failed to meet Pentagon requirements and offered only five to 10 years of useful life.
“This compares to the current VH3 presidential helicopters that are 30 to 40 years old,” Gates said.
“There needs to be a new presidential helicopter,” he added. “There’s still good service life left in the ones that are in the fleet right now, so we have time to do this.”
Lockheed and its chief subcontractor on the project, AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica, won the presidential helicopter contract in January 2005.
They beat Sikorsky Aircraft, a United Technologies Corp unit that makes the current fleet of helicopters used to transport the president. (Reporting by David Morgan, editing by Vicki Allen)