A Marine One helicopter carrying President Obama prepares to land March 11 in New York City. A Pentagon contract award for the helicopter's replacement is expected this week. (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The contract for the next US presidential helicopter will be awarded this week, perhaps as soon as Wednesday evening, according to sources.
The only known bidder on the program is the team of Sikorsky Aircraft and Lockheed Martin, which is offering a souped-up version of Sikorsky’s S-92. The president flies in Sikorsky-made VH-3D and VH-60N aircraft.
The US government hopes to acquire up to 23 operational helicopters, with a 2020 operational date targeted.
Initially, the US Navy expected Sikorsky to be challenged by offerings from the teams of Northrop Grumman-AgustaWestland and Bell-Boeing. But after studying the requirements, both teams declined to participate in the program.
The Navy has been attempting to award the contract for the presidential helicopter, formally known as VXX, since the mid-2000s. Sikorsky actually lost to a team of Lockheed and AgustaWestland in 2005, before requirements creep led to increased costs and the eventual cancellation of that contract in 2009. The new competition was launched in November 2012.
Many of the issues with the older award stemmed from the US Secret Service and White House seeking a larger helicopter in the AgustaWestland AW101 and hoping to cram more technology onto it. Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said that led to a need to redesign almost the entire aircraft.
“There are very few helos [in] that weight class, and it’s almost a market anomaly,” he said, noting that aside from the S-92 and the AW101, the only other solution could come from Airbus Helicopters, which did not show interest in the competition.
“The 101 looked very good for the mission, but the problem is a bigger helicopter encouraged everyone involved to produce the ultimate, gold-plated product,” he said.
Aboulafia said he expects the program to go much more smoothly this time.
“Now it looks like fewer people have any kind of buy-in to the process, it looks like it’s more streamlined, more straightforward,” he said. “These helicopters are getting to the half-century mark. This thing has to work. There’s really just one feasible choice.”
If the award comes through as expected, it would be another in a series of boosts for Connecticut-based Sikorsky.
This week, the company unveiled the first flying model of its CH-53K heavy-lift test helicopter, designed for the US Marine Corps using entirely digital tools. The service plans to purchase 200 of the aircraft, with the first going operational in 2019.
And in March, the US Air Force surprised onlookers by announcing it would award Sikorsky a major contract for its combat rescue helicopter program before the end of June. ■
Christopher P. Cavas in Florida contributed to this report.