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Obama says his new chopper is 'procurement gone amuck'

'The helicopter I have now seems quite adequate'

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It looks as though the new US President may soon join the Queen and switch to purchasing his official helicopters in America. Speculation is rife over the future of the planned buy of modified British/Italian copters, after Barack Obama made negative remarks regarding the project.

"The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me," said Mr Obama in a recent Q&A with Republican senator John McCain, his erstwhile rival in the 2008 presidential race.

"Of course, I've never had a helicopter before - maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it," added the president, to laughter from reporters.

At the moment, the US presidential chopper fleet is made up of ageing VH-3D Sikorsky Sea Kings, a type otherwise retired from US service but still used for troop transport and rescue work in the UK. It has lately had its useful life extended by upgrades such as improved helicopter blades.

The Queen also flies Sikorsky, the Royal Household having lately ordered a new S-76 C++. (The Royal Air Force also operates a VIP-transport unit, 32 Squadron, which spends about 20 per cent of its time flying royalty. In addition to its fixed-wing planes, 32 Sqn has some Agusta A109E copters. The former Queen's Flight RAF went out of business some time back.)

Sikorsky did bid to replace the existing Presidential choppers, operated by the US Marines. But they were sidelined in favour of a bid led by US weapons globocorp Lockheed, offering heavily-pimped Merlins from Brit/Italian maker AgustaWestland.

The Merlin has been something of a disaster for the British armed services, its primary customer. The naval submarine-hunting version finally began to reach operational useability a few years ago, after a 25-year gestation period which saw the cost per aircraft quintuple. The naval Merlin HM1 is said to be an impressive piece of subhunting kit, but as an aircraft its performance is questionable: it doesn't have enough power to achieve a hover in still airs with a full load of weapons and fuel*, for instance.

The Merlin HC3 troop carrier in RAF service has also been very expensive and slow to reach operational capability, and had lamentable availability rates until the makers were hosed down with even more taxpayer cash.

Nonetheless, with Washington keen to throw its European allies a small bone (and perhaps to get a bit of whip hand over domestic heli suppliers, without taking any large important deals away from them) the Merlin was chosen as the new "Marine One" chopper - just as the president's plane takes the callsign "Air Force One" when he boards, so his Marine-operated helicopter becomes Marine One.

Since the choice, however, costs have ballooned to the point where each chopper will cost more than one of the current Air Force One jumbo jets (though perhaps not more than one of their replacements). The runaway costs have been the fault of the US Navy, in charge of the project on the Marines' behalf, as much as of Lockheed and AgustaWestland. Mushrooming requirements for hardening against electromagnetic pulse, an executive washroom, fourteen luxury seats and a comms suite "equivalent to a flying Oval Office" - and all this in a chopper offering a payload of only four tonnes in RAF service - have been a major problem.

Now the troubled programme, always disliked in the States for "taking jobs from US workers" - though in fact much of the production is planned to happen in America - has become a symbol of Pentagon procurement excess.

President Obama describes it as "an example of the procurement process gone amuck" and said "we're going to have to fix it".

Cancelling and starting over again with Sikorsky or Boeing still seems relatively unlikely, though it would play well with some audiences in the States. Perhaps more plausible would be a radical trimming of requirements, leading to a more basic chopper. But there's no doubt, with public notice being taken at this sort of level, that this particular Pentagon gravy train may be about to stop.

"Simply adding more and more does not necessarily mean better and better, or safer and more secure... we've got to think that through," according to President Obama. ®

*This isn't quite as bad as it might seem. Ashore the Merlin can roll forwards to take off fully loaded, and at sea its mother ship can increase speed and provide a wind over the deck. This provides extra lift, as helicopter blades work better when beating air which they haven't already churned up.

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