The Boeing Company disclosed today that it intends to be a bidder in the competition to build a next-generation presidential helicopter. It said it had purchased the rights to build a domestic version of the AgustaWestland EH101 helicopter — the same rotorcraft that Lockheed Martin offered in a previous competition to replace the White House fleet. Lockheed won the first competition, but the program was later canceled by defense secretary Robert Gates due to rising costs. Lockheed is now teamed with longtime incumbent Sikorsky in offering a version of Sikorsky’s H-92 helicopter for the executive-transport mission.
The Boeing and Sikorsky-Lockheed teams look fairly evenly matched. On the one hand, Sikorsky and Lockheed possess unique experience concerning the operational requirements and performance features of the White House fleet. On the other hand, Boeing will be offering an intrinsically superior airframe, with greater carrying capacity, range and safety margin than any other rotorcraft capable of landing on the White House lawn. Earlier reports had indicated that Boeing might team with partner Textron in offering the V-22 tiltrotor for the presidential-transport mission, but the role of that airframe likely would be confined to emergency missions rather than routine travel.
Boeing’s bid could create some embarrassing moments for both itself and Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin spent years arguing that the AgustaWestland airframe was superior to the Sikorsky product it now supports, and a 2008 review by Pentagon policymakers came to the same conclusion. So Lockheed is likely to see its own words used against it in the upcoming competition. By the same token, Boeing is engaged in a bitter dispute with Airbus concerning European aircraft subsidies, and that dispute has spilled over into the plan to build a future aerial-refueling tanker for the Air Force. Airbus will undoubtedly try to twist Boeing’s decision to offer a European helicopter design in the White House competition as a way of making the U.S. company look bad, even though Boeing’s concern on that front is more about fairness than place of origin.
As Christopher Drew noted in today’s New York Times, the government will be selecting between the same two rotorcraft in the new competition that were offered the first time around, albeit with different teams behind them. Whether the government ultimately saves any money from starting over rather than sticking with the helicopter on which it had already spent $4 billion will depend on how it re-writes its performance specifications. If it drastically scales back its expectations for the future helicopter, then the Sikorsky-Lockheed airframe has a chance of winning. But the more likely outcome is that once the Secret Service, Pentagon and other players have set forth their goals for helicopter, the greater capacity of the EH101 will once again prevail.