Wednesday, March 5, 2008

VH-71 Kestrel - where's the outrage?

Readers of my "Weekend Wings" series will have noted my description of the new Presidential helicopter program some weeks ago. Briefly, the VH-71 Kestrel is being developed from the AgustaWestland EH-101 platform to provide VIP transport to the President of the United States.

The initial cost estimates were bad enough - 6.8 billion dollars for 23 aircraft, or a cost of almost $296 million per helicopter. However, those initial estimates are long out of date. The latest estimates have just been announced, confirming earlier suspicions.

Brace yourselves.

John Young, undersecretary for acquisition, said the cost estimate to develop the most advanced version of the chopper had grown to $7.5 billion from $4.5 billion.

Costs for the first phase of an interim model scheduled to be fielded by 2010 have grown to $3.7 billion from $2.3 billion, or 61 percent, he said.

For the arithmetically challenged, that brings the total program cost to $11.2 billion. Averaging this across the 23 aircraft to be purchased, the cost of each is now a staggering, unbelievable $487 million.

Let me say that again.




People, this is absolutely freaking bugnuts batshit INSANE!!!

The unit cost of a single Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk, used in the thousands by the US and other armed forces and already flying in the Presidential transport squadron, is approximately $14 million. For the price of one VH-71 we could buy 34 Blackhawks and have change left over.

The unit cost of a Sikorsky S-92 medium helicopter (which competed with - and lost to - the EH101 for the Presidential helicopter contract) is between $16 and $20 million. Even at the higher price, we could buy 24 of them for the price of one VH-71.

The cost of a Boeing 737 airliner is approximately $85 million for the latest version. We could buy five of them for less than the cost of one VH-71.

The unit cost of the US Air Force's new KC-45 tanker aircraft is estimated by various sources to be anywhere from $170 to $200 million (that figure is subject to confirmation). If it's accurate, we could buy two KC-45's for the cost of one VH-71 and have tens of millions in change.

The unit cost of an Airbus A380 superjumbo, the latest and largest airliner ever to enter service, is said to be $320 million - fully equipped to handle up to 600 passengers and crew. (Heck, the toilets on the A380 probably represent several times more usable space than a couple of VH-71's!)

The unit cost of an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, including the amortization of all development costs across the planned total purchase of 183 aircraft, is approximately $350 million.

Would somebody please explain to me, in small words that my cringing mind can grasp and comprehend, why a Presidential helicopter should cost so much more than any of these aircraft?

As far as I'm concerned, the base cost of the helicopter should not exceed $25 million. I base that figure on the cost of commercial competitors to the EH-101 helicopter.

So HOW THE HELL do the bean-counters justify the additional $462 million or so that we, the taxpayers of this country, are expected to cough up per aircraft?

Dammit, it would probably cost less to gold-plate the darn thing, silver-plate the rotor blades, hand-carve the seats out of rare tropical woods, inlay them with semi-precious stones and provide genuine mink fur upholstery!

This is the most colossal budgetary boondoggle I've ever heard of from the Washington establishment. I'm not alone in pointing this out, either.

I simply can't understand why howls of outrage aren't ascending from every single commentator on both sides of the US political divide. Surely one's politics don't matter when it comes to identifying financial waste and - dare I say? - fraudulent expenditure on this scale? Yes, I call it fraud - a fraud perpetrated by the US government on the US taxpayer.

The sooner this entire program is canceled, the better. I hope you'll contact your Congressional and Senate representatives to express your outrage. If you don't, and the US Government gets away with this, then we have no excuse to complain about other pork-barrel spending from our representatives.

After all, given this example (and others like it), they'll understand all too well that most Americans simply don't care when they pour our tax money down a bottomless pit of waste.



Sevesteen said...

How much of the money is already spent, and what is the marginal cost of each Kestrel? Do we save much if we stop now, or is it at a point where most of the money is already gone, and cutting it off now just means we don't get any result?

Something needs to be done about over-budget contracts, from both ends. The government needs to set specs and stick to them, and the contractors need to meet the specs at the price they bid. The little bit I saw of government contracts in the Air Force disgusted me--The project manager got praise for getting the contract on time and under budget, but he did it by ignoring fairly serious out-of-spec conditions. Units were set up so they couldn't be removed without the serrated bottom sawing radio transmit cables. The solution to that was to wrap them in spiral wrap, and replace it when it got sawed through. Spec called for enough slack for 6 connector changes while still leaving room for strain relief, the newly installed cable had no slack at all, and pulled tight when you screwed it in to the transmitter.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely on this one, Peter. But sadly, the program will go on, spending the funds Congress has given them, and boot it down the road to the next administration. This travesty doesn't even raise many eyebrows amidst the media and Congress, beyond a little huffing and posturing.

The sunk costs to dat are a couple of billion, and contract termination liability is anybody;s guess.

Lacking any outrage from the populace and legislators, I don;t see any of the heirs apparent doing anything serious about this one either.



Anonymous said...

You need to compare apples with apples. To put the cost per unit of a VH-71 presidential-spec Kestrel against any other military helicopter or aircraft is showing ignorance of the program itself. The Presidential specification is what is INSANE here, not the cost. How many helicopters do you know where the specification includes TWO SAFES! And that on each of the 23, or is it 24, helicopters. WHY, I ASK YOU? This is just one small example of the madness of the specification. Let alone the avionics suite, IR jamming, etc etc that the Presidential office demands. Putting all these goodies in (and mostly AFTER the spec was "finalized", as sevesteen said) is creating the delays and cost add-ons. Just think about all the extra center-of-gravity calculations required for two safes and the extra flight testing required for a new center-of-gravity.

Gay_Cynic said...

I'm willing to support just about a 10% bump for "presidential aircraft" on the theory that additional communications gear might be needed.

Can't see why much more would be needed, and definitely can't see why a special "target craft" visually and otherwise unique, would be a good notion at vastly greater cost.

Airwolf said...

This entire program is insane. The EH101 was designed to past FARs governing crashworthiness and birdstrike and lightning protection. NAVAIR wants a Presidential helicopter with safety as good or better than modern civil/miltary rotorcraft. That means redesigning the EH101 to match the dynamic crashworthiness of the S-92 or V-22. Carrying the extra weight requires new engines, new rotor systems, and a new drivetrain. All of this is being done in Europe by AgustaWestland because Lockheed knows nothing of rotorcraft structures or dynamics. (Bell has no role in VH-71 engineering.) It also requires a totally new Yankee White manufacturing and servicing organization. Pax has a brand-new Presidential Support Facility for the thing. The costs have just begun to pile up.

Anonymous said...

As with all military contracts the spec changes every week! The original aircraft would of been built for the original contract price up until the day someone decided they wanted Air Force One shoe horned in to a helicopter, thats why the price has gone mental.

Bob said...

When I heard about the VH-71 Kestrel replacing the presidential variant of the SH-3, I was stunned. What stuns me even more is that as an ex-Lockheed Martin employee I couldn't understand Martin's joint venture with AgustaWestland, considering Martin Marietta fought to win the AAH-64 Apache contract back in the 1980's, wresting it away from Agusta which tried very hard to create an attack chopper to compete with the Apache. This joint venture between Martin and AgustaWestland gives this contract a "keep it in America" ring to it but I suspect the "jointness" of this venture is paper-based only. Sikorsky has built some wonderful helicopters over the decades and to just walk away from the Blackhawk (and Seaking H-3) is unconcienable. I understand that the H-3 is very old, but the VH-60 is not. Also, consider how Spain backed out of the war on terror and went totally Socialist when Al Qaeda bombed their country; so why turn around and grant them a multi-billion dollar contract? I will be getting a retirement from Martin when I am in my 60's, so I wish them well in their business endeavours but I wish they had not gone into this venture with Sikorsky's competitors.