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Navy moves ahead to replace presidential helicopters

U.S. President Barack Obama boards Marine One before departing for a trip to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia from the White House in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama boards Marine One before departing for a trip to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia from the White House in Washington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy is moving forward with a long-delayed effort to replace the aging fleet of Marine One helicopters that transport the U.S. president, with the first of the new aircraft slated to enter service in 2020.

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

On Friday, the Navy issued a draft request for proposals that maps out its plan to buy 25 new helicopters, giving companies until December 5 to respond. It also invited bidders to an unclassified conference to be held the week of December 10, when government officials will answer questions about the proposed terms of the competition.

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 AgustaWestland 101 helicopter.

Boeing Co 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.

In the draft request, which was posted to a federal procurement website on November 23, the Navy said its acquisition plan aimed to integrate mature communications equipment into an existing aircraft. It said it expected to issue a final draft request for proposals in March 2013 and award an initial engineering and design contract by mid-2014.

"We're pursuing a technically viable and cost-effective aircraft to replace the current presidential helicopters," said Navy spokeswoman Kelly Burdick. "No PowerPoint planes."

Captain Cate Mueller, another Navy spokeswoman, said the Navy planned to award a fixed-price contract with an incentive fee for the development program, moving to fixed-price terms for low rate initial production and full production.

She said the new program was structured to emphasize "affordability, cost control and risk reduction in balance with system performance," before any major contracts are awarded.

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

The Navy's new procurement program comes as weapons companies brace for additional cuts in defense spending, regardless of whether Congress is able to avert $500 billion in reductions that are due to start taking effect in January.

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.

Burdick said the first helicopters built under the previous Lockheed program were sold to Canada, while some additional parts were sold to Denmark.

It was not immediately clear how much money was raised by the sales, but the Navy had planned to use the funds to defray the termination costs it owed Lockheed for cancelling the program.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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