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U.S. Navy moves ahead on new presidential helicopter program

U.S. President Barack Obama waves to visitors as he steps aboard Marine One for departure from the White House, Washington February 14, 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to visitors as he steps aboard Marine One for departure from the White House, Washington February 14, 2013

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy posted the final rules for a long-delayed, multibillion dollar competition for a new fleet of presidential helicopters, saying it planned to award a contract about a year from now despite looming U.S. defense budget cuts.

"We're moving forward as we planned all along," said Kelly Burdick, spokeswoman for the Navy office that is overseeing the competition, one of the few for new military helicopters in coming years.

Burdick said the Navy's latest effort to buy new presidential helicopters was carefully structured to be affordable given mounting pressures on U.S. military budgets. She said it was not immediately clear if the program would be affected by across-the-board budget cuts that took effect on March 1. "What will be, will be," she said.

The Navy posted the final request for proposals for a new Marine One helicopter on Friday, setting an August 1 deadline for proposals to be submitted and saying it planned to pick a winning bidder in the third quarter of fiscal year 2014.

The Navy's last attempt to buy a new presidential helicopter ended in 2009, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled a program run by Lockheed Martin Corp after numerous requirement changes threatened to double the cost of the program to more than $13 billion.

The Navy's posting on Friday called for construction of six developmental helicopters during the engineering design phase, followed by nine helicopters during a low-rate production phase and up to eight more in the following years.

This time, Lockheed Martin is paired with Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, offering Sikorsky's S-92 helicopter.

Lockheed's partner on the previous program, Finmeccanica SpA unit AgustaWestland, has teamed up with Northrop Grumman Corp, to submit a possible bid based on the AgustaWestland 101 helicopter.

Boeing Co has said it is also studying a possible bid based on its H-47 Chinook helicopter or the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that it builds with Textron Inc's Bell Helicopter unit.

The current presidential helicopters are VH-60N "Night Hawks" and VH-3D "Sea Kings," both built by Sikorsky. The fleet is operated by the Marine Corps, but the acquisition program is overseen by the Navy.

The Navy included $1.85 billion for the program in its budget request for fiscal 2013 through 2017, with funding to increase from $61.2 million the first year to $687.7 million in fiscal 2017.

Congressional aides said the Navy's plan to slowly ramp up funding for the program could ensure its survival, even if some additional cuts are imposed on the Pentagon as part of a compromise to avoid the full brunt of the cuts now planned.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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