Although President Donald Trump made headlines for tweeting his criticism of the cost of replacing Air Force One this past December. But the aircraft solely used by the president of the United States is actually authorized and funded through a separate branch of government: Congress. Oversight and replacement of Air Force One, officially known as the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization program, falls under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. And given that presidential transportation has been an enduring Air Force mission since the Eisenhower era, the effort to replace the iconic white and blue planes uses Department of Defense dollars and therefore requires congressional approval.
There seems to be almost unanimous agreement — a rarity in Congress — that the president’s current aerial fleet needs to be replaced. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have used the current two VC-25 aircraft, based on the Boeing 747-200 passenger aircraft, since they were originally acquired in 1990 and first flew then-President George H.W. Bush. Today, 27 years later, less than 15 747-200 passenger aircraft remain in service worldwide — and zero with U.S. commercial airlines.
As the current VC-25 fleet has increased in age, it has also seen an uptick in maintenance issues and costs. The first heavy-maintenance duration for the fleet in 1993 reportedly lasted 212 days, while the most recent heavy-maintenance duration exceeded 630 days. Additionally, the cost to maintain and upgrade the fleet will continue to grow substantially due to issues such as obsolete parts, aging systems and growing maintenance downtime. The alternative to recapitalizing the fleet would be to completely modernize an outdated platform — an expensive undertaking and an unwise investment.
The question then is not whether the current planes should be replaced, but rather how and at what cost. While the president of the United States, regardless of party, certainly deserves to have an aircraft that meets the needs of the office, the American taxpayer deserves an acquisition strategy that uses hard-earned dollars effectively. With this in mind, there are a number of initiatives that Congress must implement to maintain strict oversight while also providing the best, most cost-effective aircraft to the president.
First, Air Force senior leadership should have to approve any changes to the requirements of the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization, or PAR, program, as well as notify Congress when changes are made. As then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stated in 2016, the Air Force’s role is to receive requirements from the White House Military Office and build an acquisition strategy to deliver them. If a change is sought in the agreed-upon requirements, the secretary or chief of staff of the Air Force should have to verify that the change is necessary and that it does not negatively impact the acquisition process. By minimizing change in requirements, we also minimize change (i.e., increases) in cost.
Second, fixed-price contracts should be used to the maximum extent possible for the PAR program. This means costs should be set at negotiated amounts for the low- to moderate-risk parts of the program, leaving any cost overruns to the manufacturer to pay, not the American taxpayer. To that effect, the Air Force and Boeing already reached an important agreement to acquire two new 747-8 aircraft at a fixed, discounted price. This model should be replicated as much as possible to also acquire follow-on components — such as communications equipment, powerful engines and self-defense systems — that transform a standard 747-8 into Air Force One.
Third, the secretary of the Air Force must provide quarterly briefings to Congress addressing cost-control efforts. Since Congress authorizes and appropriates the funds for the PAR program, members, on behalf of the American people, must also know if the program is on schedule and on budget. Before the aircraft achieves initial operational capability in 2024, the Air Force must disclose any issues related to the contract, development, modification, testing and delivery that may impact the price of the overall acquisition.
Air Force One serves as a global symbol of American democracy as well as a mobile White House for the occupant of the office of president of the United States. With some of these outlined measures in place, we can ensure that the PAR program delivers capable aircraft at a cost-effective price. This program will be a team effort; Congress and the Air Force must be actively engaged.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Natural Resources.