Copter Trouble

NYT digs into costs of canceling prez’s expensive new helicopter fleet

Remember Obama’s helicopter problem? In late February, John McCain called him out over defense procurements, and specifically about a fleet of Bush-era-ordered (and expensive) presidential helicopters.Obama responded modestly but humorously, “The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me,” a line the media loved. He also said, “I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we’re going to have to fix it.” The press loved that, too, with Jonathan Chait at The New Republic writing, “This is Obama at his most appealing.”

Yesterday, The New York Times’s Chris Drew did a good job of parsing the “fix it” process, showing that it’s considerably more complicated than news grazers, placated by the president’s reassuring response, might have suspected.

Drew writes:

But the president is learning that in the world of defense contracting, frugality can be expensive. Some lawmakers and military experts warn that his effort to avoid wasting billions of dollars could end up doing just that.

The administration’s plan to halt the $13 billion helicopter program, announced this month, will leave the government with little to show for the $3.2 billion it has spent since the Bush administration set out to create a futuristic craft that could fend off terrorist attacks and resist the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear blast.

Critics say the Pentagon would also spend at least $200 million in termination fees and perhaps hundreds of millions to extend the life of today’s aging fleet. As a result, several influential lawmakers and defense analysts are now calling for a compromise that would salvage a simpler version of the helicopter that is already being tested.

This is good stuff. Drew clearly shows that efforts to save money on the helicopter fleet (arguably a pretty popular cause) may still end up costing taxpayers quite a bit, and how Obama’s “fix it” process may require him to go forward with some version of the helicopters. Things aren’t always black and white, even when they’re about pinching some necessary pennies.

The article also clarifies that even though the president dubbed the current fleet of helicopters “perfectly adequate,” the administration is still interested in a new fleet:

…despite Mr. Obama’s comments about sticking with the white-topped helicopters that have alighted on the White House lawn since the 1970s and ’80s, his administration still wants new craft with some of the most demanding features that the Bush team envisioned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

And from John J. Young Jr., who stepped down on Monday as the Pentagon’s acquisition chief:

Mr. Young said, Pentagon officials recommended canceling the whole program “to save as much of the money as possible and apply all our effort, all our money and all our energy” to another attempt to develop more advanced craft.

In other words, the administration is still interested in making another bid—which, Drew notes, could be just as costly, given the extensive post-9/11 security requirements that the current administration doesn’t appear willing to give up. An alternative being floated, among others by Rep. John Murtha, is to go ahead with a simpler version of the new helicopters—in the astute parlance of the times, a compromise.

The helicopter situation in and of itself isn’t top billing on anyone’s priorities. But as a follow-up on presidential rhetoric, it’s great that Drew went from the top—the confrontation between McCain and Obama, leading to Obama’s charming response (“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me”)—before opening up the floor to let readers know about all sorts of hand-tying costs: termination costs, potential costs for repairing the existent fleet or seeking a new bid, and possible compromises that might make some watchers cry foul. Good work, and keep us posted.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.