Commentary

Presidential Copter Fleet

By Charles V. Peña
September 26, 2004

After Air Force One, the most recognizable symbol of the president of the United States of America may be the Marine One helicopter, which provides all helicopter transportation for the president both overseas and within the continental United States. In fact, there is probably more television footage of the president stepping off of Marine One and onto the White House lawn than there is of him boarding or deplaning from Air Force One. After 30 years in service, the current fleet of Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King helicopters that do duty as Marine One are due to be replaced. The Navy is conducting a competition to select a company to develop and build the new Marine One helicopters. The Navy hopes to award the contract for Marine One — worth $1.6 billion — in December. But an additional 400 helicopters for the Air Force, Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security may also be at stake and could mean another $8 billion to the winner. The competition, however, is being clouded by the “buy American” issue.

The two prime contractors vying for the Marine One contract — Connecticut-based Sikorsky and Maryland-based Lockheed Martin — have each been going to great pains to portray their respective teams as more American than the other. Sikorsky bills itself as the All-American Team and even dumped foreign suppliers such as China’s Jingdezhen Helicopter Group, Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation of Taiwan and Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer — even though some of these companies actually helped pay for the development of the new helicopter Sikorsky is touting. The Lockheed Martin team is called US101 and includes the Anglo-Italian helicopter company AgustaWestland, Texas-based Bell Helicopter, and more than 200 other U.S. suppliers in 41 states.

Under current laws, 50 percent of a U.S. weapon system must be American-made, so both Sikorsky’s All American Team and Lockheed Martin’s US101 Team must meet this litmus test. But the decision on the new Marine One helicopter shouldn’t have anything to do with “made in America.” It should be about choosing the best helicopter. It shouldn’t matter that all the companies on the Sikorsky team are American and their claim that awarding the contract to Sikorsky would mean “providing jobs and a future for American workers.” Similarly, it shouldn’t matter that the US101 helicopter is foreign designed by AgustaWestland, but as Lockheed-Martin claims, it “will be built in America, by Americans with American parts.”

Concerns about foreign-supplied parts ignore the reality of a global marketplace. America imports about 80 percent of its semiconductors — a product critical to the U.S. economy and national security — from the Far East. What matters is the ability and reliability of the company — foreign or American — to deliver the product on time and at cost, something that U.S. companies do not have a monopoly on.

And claims that foreign defense firms have an unfair competitive advantage because they receive government subsidies ignore the reality that the U.S. defense industry is hardly a bastion of free-market enterprise. The fact is that the Defense Department subsidizes research and development, arguing that it would be harmful to the defense industry if contractors had to risk losing their research and development investment in systems that the Pentagon decides not to buy.

Wrapping a product in the Stars and Stripes to appeal to patriotic sensibilities is misguided. Judgments about which team’s design is better should be based on objective and measurable criteria. Some important factors include speed, payload and range. How survivable are the proposed designs to small arms fire, rocket propelled grenades (used effectively in Iraq to down helicopters) and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles? Is in-flight refueling capability critical? Is it important that the helicopter can be easily transported, either via ship or airplane? How reliable is the helicopter? Is there data for mean time between failure for the engine and other critical components? How easy is it to upgrade electronics and other equipment as technological advances are made? Is a particular design proven and “battle” tested under the kind of conditions it will be expected to operate in?

The point here isn’t to pass judgment on whether the Sikorsky-designed helicopter is better than the AgustaWestland design or vice versa. But that judgment should not be skewed by perceptions of which helicopter is more American. It’s important to remember that the federal government has an obligation to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars wisely.

Whether it’s the president of the United States or a soldier on the front line, the ultimate criteria should be procuring the best, highest performing, technologically advanced and reliable equipment at the most reasonable cost. To do otherwise and simply buy American would be irresponsible and misguided patriotism.

Charles Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.