Sikorsky's VH-92A concept artwork
After years of delays, the Navy and Marine Corps are on the cusp of replacing the service’s aging fleet of presidential transport helicopters.
The services’ effort, which has been more than a decade in the making, is now on track to meet key program milestones, officials said.
“The program is moving on or ahead of schedule,” said Marine Corps Col. Robert Pridgen, program manager for Naval Air Systems Command’s presidential helicopters program office.
For years, the Marine Corps has been attempting to replace aging presidential rotorcraft — known as Marine One — that have been in the inventory since the 1970s and 1980s. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled a previous Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland program — known as the VXX — after costs ballooned and requirements spiraled out of control, analysts said.
Even President Barack Obama famously criticized the program.
“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me,” he said in 2009. He called the program “an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we’re going to have to fix it.”
After recompeting the program, Sikorsky’s S-92 aircraft was chosen in 2014 for what is now known as the VH-92A. The Marine Corps is equipping the system with proven, mature technologies, Pridgen said.
When “we went into the 92, we were looking for stable requirements — things that we understood. This was not going to be an S&T” project, he said. “We’re developing more mature capabilities.”
Under the contract, Sikorsky — which Lockheed Martin recently acquired from United Technologies Corp. — will provide the Marine Corps with 23 helicopters. Initial operating capability is slated for 2020. Production will end in fiscal year 2023.
The next milestone for the program is the VH-92A’s subsystem critical design review at the end of July, he said. “[Our] engineers come up and they show that they understand not only the design, but that the design meets the requirement and that requirement is in keeping with the specs that we had laid out,” he said.
The review is occurring earlier than originally scheduled, he noted.
From there, “you start cutting metal,” Pridgen said during a briefing with reporters in May. “You start solidifying the final drawings and we start moving out and modifying the aircraft.”
By spring 2017, the Marine Corps will have either flown or will be preparing to fly its first engineering and manufacturing development helicopter, he said.
“If you look at the schedule that’s a pretty impressive move,” he said. “After we get the first flight going the government will take delivery of that aircraft for a government test a year later.”
Under direction from Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall, if a change in a requirement affects cost, schedule or performance, Pentagon leaders would be notified, Pridgen said.
“There … [isn’t] going to be a surprise,” he said.
So far, the program has been free of requirements creep, he said.
“One of the enablers here that keeps us on schedule is we have seen zero requirements churn on this aircraft from the moment we signed the contract to right now,” he said. “I’m not seeing any of that going on between now and the time when we deliver the aircraft.”
That being said, he noted that it was not unreasonable to assume that technology could change. The Marine Corps could, for example, consider procuring a new radio or capability, but that would require approval from Defense Department leadership, he added.
The success of the current program stands in stark contrast to the previous attempt.
“There’s a regular desire to compare,” Pridgen said. “What did we do different? I will tell you from a program manager’s perspective, the program has been set up with a level of discipline. … The way that the … spec works were written down were very achievable. We recognized the timeline that needed to be accomplished. We looked at the technology that was out there.”
The VXX program, which was canceled in 2009, was plagued by delays and requirements creep, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based defense and aerospace market analysis firm.
“The last time requirements spiraled out of control,” he said. “Basically everyone was given carte blanche to change requirements and ultimately turn it into a machine that had very little in common with the off-the-shelf design that it was based on.”
The project became a “hideous combination” of White House, Secret Service and Marine Corps requirements, he added. Unrealistic requests included the ability to survive a nuclear blast and being able to fly higher than any aircraft besides a Lockheed-built U-2 Dragon Lady high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
“To be fair, they had a lot of space to work with. It was a very big helicopter. They had a very big budget to work with,” he said. “Hopefully … [the VH-92A] will be more of an art-of-the-possible machine.”
Calling the VXX an “abject failure,” Aboulafia said it will be hard for the Marine Corps not to learn from it.
What brought down the VXX was the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment, said Raymond Jaworowski, a senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based market consulting firm. Under the legislation — which was introduced in the 1980s — if cost growth in a program exceeded 25 percent that would constitute a “critical breach” and the Pentagon would have to notify Congress.
“The original VXX effort … did exceed the limit,” he said. “Bob Gates, who was the defense secretary at the time, recommended canceling the project. … Besides cost overruns he also mentioned that it was six years behind schedule and it ran the risk of not delivering the requested capability.”
Lockheed and AgustaWestland — which is now known as Leonardo-Finmeccanica — pushed back after the cancelation, he said.
“At the time, they made a lot of noise [saying] that there was requirement creep and that led to a lot of the issues — both the cost overruns and the schedule delays,” he said. They said “that the Pentagon kept coming back and adding new capabilities and new bells and whistles onto the helicopter.”
VH-92A hasn’t run into many issues so far, Jaworowski said.
“It’s still fairly early in the effort,” he said. “Essentially Sikorsky’s task right now in regards to VH-92 is program execution. They have to be careful about cost overruns and schedule delays and technical difficulties.”
While some delays are likely, they must keep them to a minimum because the program is being closely watched, he added.
“It’s a highly visible program essentially because of what it is. Some people call the presidential transport helicopter the most photographed helicopter in the world,” he said.
It is also important for the company because Sikorsky is the incumbent manufacturer of legacy presidential helicopters, he said. Sikorsky is approaching the project carefully and hoping to avoid the pitfalls of previous programs, he said.
“This time around they’re trying to institute kind of a low-risk approach hoping to keep costs down. They’re going to use existing technology rather than developing new technology. They’re using government-defined mission systems into an existing air vehicle,” he said. “They realize what happened the first time around and they are trying to learn from those lessons.”
While the program is relatively small, it is very prestigious and helps Sikorsky’s S-92 brand, Jaworowski said. It is especially critical because low petroleum prices are driving oil and gas operators to curb their helicopter spending.
“Because of what is happening in the oil industry, it’s especially important for the S-92 program,” he said. “Oil and gas operators — which are a big segment for S-92 — are postponing their helicopter acquisition plans, and that part of the civil market is down.”
A recently released Government Accountability Office report found that the VH-92A program was in good shape.
“Since 2014, the VH-92A presidential helicopter program has generally progressed as planned,” the April report said. “The program is currently on track to accomplish key development milestones as planned.”
As of November 2015, Sikorsky had accomplished $239 million, or 22 percent, of development work leaving $863.9 million, or 78 percent, of remaining work over the next five years, it said.
As of December, it had accomplished most of the program’s developmental tasks at “only slightly greater cost than anticipated,” the report said.
The program does face some technical challenges, it noted.
“As to be expected with a major system development effort, as the program has progressed it has faced a number of design, integration and technical challenges, some preexisting and others realized during the course of development,” it said. “Examples of the challenges the program is currently managing include design of the passenger doors, incorporation of titanium framing in the two initial aircraft, and meeting requirements relating to electromagnetic environmental effects and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and cybersecurity.”
The design of forward and rear doors has been more challenging than anticipated, the report found. To meet requirements, the doors were designed to be larger, increasing their weight.
“The increase in the doors’ weight in combination with a requirement for a single-person manual open-and-close capability necessitated an unanticipated redesign of the doors’ counterbalance systems and also complicated latch design,” the report said. It required extensive design and structural analysis to resolve the issue.
Program office officials are also working on new ways to harden the aircraft from the effects of an electromagnetic pulse, it said. Testing is currently underway to determine which measures would be appropriate, such as increased shielding or additional EMP limiters that protect electronics, the report said.
There is some concern that limiters selected for the helicopter may not provide enough protection, although program officials believe they have found a solution, the report noted.
System developers also need to update the aircraft’s cybersecurity infrastructure in order to meet new requirements. A revised Pentagon cybersecurity policy and risk management framework was released after the aircraft’s test-and-evaluation master plan was approved in 2013.
“The program has subsequently been working to address the changes necessitated by the revised policy and framework including actively pursuing a contract change to migrate from the certification required under the contract to the current certification standard,” the GAO report said.
The office — which has been following the program since 2011 — made no recommendations for the program in its report.
Photo: Defense Dept.