Pentagon narrows options on presidential helicopter

WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Recent meetings among top Pentagon, Navy and Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N officials helped narrow the options for restructuring the $6.1 billion VH-71 presidential helicopter program, two sources familiar with the program told Reuters on Tuesday.

During the discussions it became clear the government will need to spend at least an extra $1 billion to restructure the second phase of the helicopter program, said the sources, who asked not to be named. The round of meetings, which went for eight hours on Saturday, ended without any major decisions.

Options reviewed included cutting back the program significantly, or replacing the Lockheed US101 helicopter with a modified or upgraded H-3 helicopter built by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp UTX.N.

“None of the alternatives was as suitable for the mission as the US101,” said one of the sources. “It probably helped the US101. There’s not that many helicopters that can carry all that equipment and still land on the White House lawn.”

But a long list of additional equipment the White House says it needs would add so much weight to the helicopter that the Lockheed US101 would require major changes, including possibly lengthening the tail, said the source.

Some of the White House changes are relatively minor, such as plush carpeting, while many are classified and include communications equipment and extending the aircraft’s range.

Rotor changes were also under discussion.

Lockheed and its European partner, AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica SIFI.MI, won the contract in 2005. They defeated Sikorsky, which makes the current H-3 and H-60 helicopters used by the Marine Corps to ferry the president.

Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. John Schofield declined comment on the Saturday meeting. He said cost and schedule impacts would not be fully known until the restructuring of the program was approved by Pentagon leaders.

“This is a high-risk program principally because of the need to deliver a sophisticated helicopter system three years ahead of a normal acquisition schedule,” he said.

Schofield said the first phase of the program was on track to meet or exceed performance requirements for airspeed and range. All nine Increment 1 helicopters were in various stages of being built or delivered.

Defense analyst Loren Thompson said the program was handicapped nearly from the start by the White House’s addition of more than 1,900 requirements for the helicopter.

“The problem this program faces is that the White House wants to add many performance requirements that potentially increase the size of the helicopter,” he said.

Lockheed confirmed it was asked to participate in the meetings on Saturday, but gave no further details.

“The government is currently reviewing options on the VH-71 program,” said Lockheed spokeswoman Monica Hallman. “In the meantime, we have three test vehicles in flight test and we continue to make progress on the first phase of the program.”

Lockheed said the government issued a temporary stop-work order for the second phase of the program in December after Congress cut $500 million in funding for fiscal 2008.

Initial delivery of the new helicopters was first planned for fiscal 2013, but would be delayed by five years if draft plans leaked last year are finalized. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Andre Grenon)