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Editorial: Shopping for presidential choppers

06:56 PM CDT on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Looking at the context of President Barack Obama's post-inaugural decision to cancel funding for an expensive new line of presidential helicopters, it's easy to understand his logic. Controversy was swirling over the private jets flown by executives of the troubled Big Three automakers. The nation was in economic meltdown, and the new president felt compelled to make at least a symbolic gesture by making do with the existing fleet of helicopters, dubbed Marine One when he's on them.

Evidence is mounting, though, that this thinking was flawed, especially considering that the administration now hopes to embark on yet another expensive helicopter program.

There is no avoiding the fact that the current line of 19 aging VH-3D and VH-60N presidential helicopters will have to be replaced. Some were built in the mid-1970s and can no longer be reasonably retrofitted to meet White House requirements. The Clinton administration proposed replacing them with 23 modern VH-71 helicopters, costing around $6.5 billion. But after 9/11, the frenzy over presidential security led to a redesign, bumping the cost to $13 billion, more than $500 million per helicopter. Jumbo jets cost less.

Industry analysts say the redesigned VH-71, dubbed "Increment 2," is overloaded with expensive gizmos that go way beyond the president's needs for short-hop flights. The original Increment 1 helicopter was both cost-effective and adequate for the job. (Up to 200 jobs at Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter Textron are affected by the VH-71 contract.)

A Congressional Research Service study this month estimated that it could cost up to $20 billion to cancel VH-71, shut down production lines, refit the existing fleet for continued service and eventually start the new program proposed by the Obama administration. If Congress revived the original Increment 1 program, as it now seems inclined to do, the president could have 23 new helicopters for less than half that price, including five prototypes outfitted and ready for service.

Despite the fleet's small size, these helicopters serve a critical mission: transporting the world's most powerful leader at low altitudes over urban areas. Although the president can only travel on one at a time, the others are no less essential. Several serve as backups and decoys. Some must be rotated out of service for maintenance. Others are in various states of advanced deployment for presidential trips outside Washington.

Canceling the VH-71 program might seem a thrifty, cost-saving move. But the long-term expense to taxpayers will be much higher when the presidential helicopter fleet has to be replaced, which is inevitable. Taxpayers already have made a $3.3 billion investment in Increment 1. Rather than throw that investment out the window and start over, Congress should bring the president back to earth.

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