Pentagon Envisions New Air Force One Presidential Jet

The president of the United States may get a new Air Force One jetliner -- that is, whoever’s president after the 2020 elections.

The Pentagon started a program yesterday to develop and buy replacement presidential aircraft for use a decade from now. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Frank Kendall authorized the Air Force to establish an office for the replacement program, which includes new Marine One helicopters available for use no earlier than 2020.

The first of two current VC-25A Boeing 747-200B aircraft that serve as Air Force One entered service transporting presidential parties in September 1990. The aircraft are expected to have 30-year service lives, the Air Force said.

“Air Force One is one of the most recognizable symbols of the presidency, spawning countless references not just in American culture but across the world,” the White House says on its website.

Capable of refueling midair, Air Force One has unlimited range and can carry the President wherever he needs to travel, according to the White House. The on-board electronics are hardened to protect against an electromagnetic pulse. Air Force One is equipped with advanced secure communications equipment to function as a mobile command center in the event of an attack on the U.S., as well as a medical suite that can function as an operating room.

Aircraft Makers

The first phase of the program will focus on completing a market analysis and assessment of performance requirements for the presidential transports, according to a defense official who spoke yesterday on the condition he not be identified since the decision memo hasn’t been released. These will be reviewed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff formal requirements board.

The plan is good news for aircraft and engine makers such as Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., Chicago-based Boeing Co., and engine makers Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric Co. and Hartford, Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp.

The Pentagon has budgeted $757 million through 2017 for the first phase of the Air Force One replacement and $1.84 billion for the helicopter replacement through 2017 and most of the money would be spent after fiscal 2015, the official said.

The initial new Air Force One wouldn’t be delivered for modification with specialized technology until 2019, according to the Pentagon’s latest 30-year aviation plan.

A new presidential helicopter to replace the 35-year-old models now in service wouldn’t be declared operational until 2020, followed by the new Air Force One aircraft in 2023, the official said, citing a formal schedule.

Clear Need

Kendall directed the Air Force to create a plan that anticipates releasing a request for proposals for the airplane to industry in 2015 with the potential for a development contract award in 2016, according to a summary of his acquisition decision memo.

The Air Force analysis will form the basis for a decision whether to buy sole-source from Boeing, maker of the current two aircraft that comprise the presidential fleet, or open the contest to competition, said the official. The documents didn’t specify the number of aircraft that may be purchased.

In March 2010 House testimony, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged a need to replace the current Air Force One fleet saying “there clearly is a need for a new presidential aircraft.”

“We actually have some money in the budget, in 2011, to begin looking at a new Air Force One,” Gates said. “That money will clearly ramp up in the next few years, as we move in that direction,”

Marine One

The Air Force on January 7, 2009 -- before Obama was inaugurated -- announced a market survey “to identify potential sources that possess the expertise, capabilities and experience” to develop and build an Air Force One replacement. The survey said replacing the VC-25s with new airframes was “the most cost-effective option” instead of modifying the current aircraft.

The helicopter plan is the latest attempt to replace the existing choppers since Gates terminated the then-VH-71 program in 2009 because of cost growth and schedule delays after Lockheed Martin won the program.

The VH-71 helicopter program when canceled was projected to cost $13 billion, more than twice the original estimate of $6.1 billion. The most capable version of the aircraft to be operational by December 2017 was running at least 24 months late when terminated.

‘Perfectly Adequate’

President Barack Obama in February 2009 called this program “an example of the procurement process gone amok” and suggested he didn’t need a new helicopter. The current version of Marine One is “perfectly adequate,” he told a White House summit on fiscal responsibility.

Kendall in his memo directed the Air Force begin detailed planning for an acquisition strategy. The goal is potentially releasing a request for proposals for the helicopter to industry in fiscal 2013 and possible development contract in 2014. The exact number of helicopters to be purchased hasn’t yet been decided, the official said.

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