VH-92A presidential helicopter under budget, but still faces some challenges

The next U.S. presidential helicopter is on track to cost around $234 million less than initially anticipated, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

VH-92A presidential helicopter lands on White House South Lawn
A developmental VH-92A presidential helicopter conducts landing and takeoff testing at the White House South Lawn in September 2018. According to the GAO, the aircraft has still not fully met a requirement to be able to land here without adversely affecting the landing zone. USMC Sgt Hunter Helis Photo
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As of last May, total acquisition costs for the Sikorsky VH-92A presidential helicopter were estimated at $4.95 billion, down around 4.5 percent from the $5.18 billion estimated in April 2014. With the program expected to deliver 23 aircraft, that equates to a unit cost of around $215 million per helicopter.

Of the estimated savings, approximately $88 million can be attributed to efficiencies gained during development, and $103 million to revised spare parts cost and equipment production list. Another $36 million comes from lower than expected inflation rates.

“A key factor in controlling total program acquisition cost has been performance requirements stability,” the GAO report states. “The Navy has not added any key performance requirements to the fixed-price contract, thereby limiting cost growth. In addition, the Navy and the contractor have been able to limit the number of necessary design changes that require modifications to aircraft.”

Based on Sikorsky’s commercial S-92A, the VH-92A incorporates an executive cabin interior and specialized communications and other equipment for the mission of transporting the U.S. president. It will replace the Marine Corps’ existing fleet of Sikorsky VH-3D and VH-60N helicopters, which have been in service for decades.

The Navy previously attempted to replace this aging fleet starting in 2002, selecting a variant of the AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) AW101 called the VH-71. However, the Navy terminated the contract in 2009 due to schedule delays, performance issues, and a doubling of cost estimates, from $6.5 billion to $13 billion.

While estimated costs for the VH-92A are lower than expected, the program has seen some delays. Specifically, the Milestone C review to authorize low-rate initial production has been pushed back five months, from January to June 2019; and the initial operational test and evaluation start has been pushed back from October 2019 to March 2020. An initial operational capability decision is now anticipated in October 2020, three months later than initially expected.

Moreover, the GAO observed, “the VH-92A program continues to face development challenges that could affect Sikorsky’s ability to deliver fully capable aircraft prior to the start of initial operational test and evaluation.” These include issues related to the aircraft’s propulsion system and landing zone suitability, and the interoperability of its mission communications system with secure networks.

“According to the program office, the performance requirements associated with these challenges may not be fully achieved until after the low-rate initial production decision currently planned for June 2019, which may result in a need to retrofit already built aircraft,” the GAO report states.

In a statement provided to Vertical, Sikorsky VH-92A program director Spencer Elani noted that the company delivered the first helicopter to support the president of the United States ahead of schedule. Two aircraft are now in the government test program and have executed various tests validating the VH-92A’s capabilities and unique modifications, he said.

“Sikorsky is confident the Defense Acquisition Board will soon issue a positive Milestone C decision for the VH-92A program to enter into production,” Elani stated. “Sikorsky is pleased a recent agency review noted the excellent teamwork and open communication between the government and industry team building the next generation presidential helicopter.”

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Overall, the VH-92A appears to be faring better than another Sikorsky helicopter program, the CH-53K, which is also being developed for the U.S. Marine Corps. Bloomberg reported last week that the CH-53K may miss its target date for initial combat capability by more than 19 months due to a list of unresolved technical deficiencies that has grown to over 100 items.

On April 9, Bloomberg reported that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, turned down a Navy request for $158 million to pay for fixes and additional testing. Instead, Smith agreed to only half that amount, requesting a progress report on the CH-53K’s exhaust gas re-ingestion problem before authorizing the remaining $79 million.

In a statement to Vertical, Sikorsky CH-53K program director Bill Falk said, “We remain aligned on a joint program plan with NAVAIR and the USMC to support the first CH-53K deployment in 2023-2024. . . . While we continue to work closely with our customer to advocate for additional funding and resources, we are pleased with the confidence the Marine Corps places in the CH-53K program with the inclusion of additional R&D resources in their recent budget request.”

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